Sustainable Sainsburys?

2011: February

How does a profit-making business stick to its ethical commitments? Can a national supermarket chain really have a relationship with the local community? And why do supermarket apples have those silly stickers on them?

All these questions, and lots more, were answered when Vince Brimble, store manager of Sainsburys in Witney, spoke at the Sustainable Witney AGM. 

Mr Brimble explained how sustainability fits into the five Sainsburys value and shared some interesting facts about what Sainsburys is doing to become a more sustainable business. For example, it was the first supermarket in Europe to trial “kinetic plates” -  essentially, rumble strips in the car park which capture kinetic energy and turn it into electricity for the store. 

The discussion after the talk covered some complex questions, including one on the relationship between customer demand and sustainability. One person asked, “Would customers really ask for strawberries in December if you didn’t put them on the shelves?” The answer, according to Mr Brimble and his colleague, appeared to be “Yes.” 

However, there is a more positive side to consumer pressure: many of the supermarket’s moves towards greater sustainability have been supported by customers’ desire to shop locally and ethically. For example, in the Witney store, “customers like to see that they’re buying locally. And if there’s a picture of the farmer – that’s great.” Staff in the Witney store have strong relationships with Oxfordshire farmers; if you’ve bought potatoes recently you’ll probably know the name of the Abingdon man who supplies them. 

Mr Brimble believes that television programmes such as Jamie’s Dinners and Hugh’s Fish Fight play an important role in getting people to think about the wider issues when they’re food shopping. 

We also discussed sustainable transport to and from the store. Several people said that they thought Sainsburys doesn’t have enough bike parking and were encouraged to put this in writing. “If you don’t tell us, we don’t know.” If a local manager wants to get the go-ahead from head office for something, customer letters do a lot to strengthen the case. 

Other questions included “Why isn’t your mature cheddar sold in recyclable packaging?” (They’re working on it) and “Do you plan to make your trolleys coin-operated?” (No, because customers hate it. But they are working on other ways to prevent trolleys from being stolen and abandoned.) And, of course, the question about stickers on apples. Turns out the stickers are to help checkout staff. It’s no fun trying to tell a Braeburn from a Pink Lady when there’s a queue of impatient shoppers building up in front of you. So now you know! 

Other facts about Sainsburys and sustainability...

  • One in three UK-grown apples and pears are sold in Sainsburys
  • Sainsburys was the first supermarket to provide in-store plastic bag recycling points
  • Sainsburys is the world’s biggest retailer of Fairtrade products
  • The Dartmouth and Durham stores are powered by biomass boilers 
  • Sainsburys is the world’s largest retailer of MSC-certified fish