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“We must always ask ourselves: are we doing enough?”

Woolworths works visibly and behind the scenes to become more sustainable.

Retailers play a crucial role in bringing products to consumers. How can they use this unique position to contribute to environmental sustainability?

For Woolworths, this is a long-term and complex process. Ralph Jewson is Project Manager at Woolworths’ Sustainability Department. On a daily basis, Ralph juggles with the demands of consumers, long-term sustainability and business feasibility. He works together with the Woolies team of technologists, product developers, buyers and various other specialists.

“Our planet is in crisis. It is clear that the linear economy model does not work. Nature is circular."

"The consumer is also becoming more aware of the need for environmental sustainability. We simply can’t afford the luxury not to act. We must change the dysfunctional relation we have with plastic.”

Complex challenges

This is not as easy as it sounds. “It’s easy to say: ‘get rid of plastic’. But we must remember that plastic is vital in delivering food safely, cheaply and efficiently. Alternatives can also have downsides. For example, if more food goes to waste, that has an environmental impact. If a packaging product is heavier, it requires more fuel for transport. These are complex issues. On top of that, consumers may not always be willing to pay a premium for more sustainably sourced products.”

Ask the right questions

“Sustainable and fair business practices go much deeper than what the consumer can see. First of all, we look at where we source our products. We ask detailed and sometimes hard questions to our suppliers.

How are their labour practices? How do they treat their livestock? What fertilizers do they use? What is their energy and water consumption? We try to buy local goods as much as we can. We audit our suppliers’ factories. Furthermore, we work with suppliers that have sustainable certifications, such as BCI for cotton, FSC for timber and Canopy for fibres.”

Ralph emphasizes that there are often trade-offs between these different goals. “However, with the right holistic approach you can achieve the lowest environmental impact.”

There are not always simple answers. Woolworths’ GBJ team engages with other departments within Woolworths to work on these projects. “We set goals for each business unit. We track the progress to see where we can improve and where we learn new insights. We closely follow technological developments. We have in-house specialists such as a soil scientist and a packaging technologist.”

Solutions must also be commercially viable. That is why some of these projects can take a long time before they come with a viable and sustainable solution. “Some of the innovations we are implementing today, such as void fill in Fashion Beauty and Home online deliveries and ‘closed loop’ recycled paper bags have taken years to develop. Our initiatives that our clients see today, are sometimes the result of a long and difficult process.”

But, for Ralph, there is no other option. “We must find a sustainable models for production and consumption, or we simply will not survive. As a retailer, we are key in delivering safe, healthy and environmentally sustainable products to the consumer. The consumer also has an important role to play. They need to think more about what is right or appropriate and take responsibility for their lifestyle and product choices."

“If we understand just how obsolete the linear economic model is, then we know that we have to work together. We simply have no other choice.”

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