When retailers unveil great ambitions to set new standards in sustainability, it frequently leads to an outbreak of grumpy whataboutery.

You saw it with Sainsbury’s this week. The grocer, which has achieved a 35% absolute reduction in its carbon footprint over the last 15 years, aspires now to become a net zero business by 2040, putting itself in the vanguard of combating climate change by meeting that target a full 10 years ahead of the Government’s own timeframe.

While many warmly welcomed Sainsbury’s commitments, others reacted by attacking perceived shortcomings. ‘What about Sainsbury’s suppliers?’ they carped, arguing that the grocer’s programme was limited to its direct operations and indirect emissions from the electricity it purchases.

Sainsbury’s net zero deadline is 10 years earlier than Tesco’s, but Tesco has set additional supplier targets, such as a 7% reduction in carbon emissions this year. But the critics would no doubt have a comeback on that too.

“No matter what efforts retailers might make, there will always be some who can never be satisfied and the ante is always being upped”

Great, they might say, but have you ever tried to recycle a crisp packet? Working in central London, I need to walk 36 minutes to recycle my cheese and onion Walkers and Tesco are still selling plenty of those, might come the sarky observation.

No matter what efforts retailers might make, there will always be some who can never be satisfied and the ante is always being upped. That’s already happening with the idea of net zero. Climate activist Greta Thunberg told the assembled dignitaries at Davos last week that it was not enough.

She said: “Until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus, then we must forget about net zero. We need real zero. Because distant net zero emission targets will mean absolutely nothing if we just continue to ignore the carbon dioxide budget — that applies for today, not distant future dates.

“If high emissions continue like now even for a few years, that remaining budget will soon be completely used up.”


As retailers such as Sainsbury’s enact their sustainability drives there will doubtless be instances when anomalies or seemingly contradictory choices may be made, which will involve educating the consumer to play their part. And the consumer’s understanding of the complexity of the challenges is incomplete.

Shoppers proudly pull out tote bags as they pay at the till. But one of those cotton bags, according to a study by the Danish government, must be reused 7,100 times before its environmental impact is less than a plaggy bag. If that bag is made from organic cotton, it would have to be reused 20,000 times.

It’s all a bit of a brainache. But retailers are right to set their ambitions high on climate change, even if they make themselves vulnerable in the process. Consumers increasingly expect the companies they buy from to do the right thing on their behalf.

Key are authenticity of commitment, determination to deliver and transparency. Only the most sour and dour would doubt the seriousness of retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco as they seek to be good corporate citizens.

That seriousness is evident in the detail which Sainsbury’s went into on its plans. Whether on biodiversity (82% of wild-caught seafood was sourced sustainably to an independent standard last year, with the target rising to 100% this year) or lower water usage (it already uses 1 billion litres less a year than in 2005 and aims to be water neutral by 2040), the grocer’s plan is not thin on the ground. And progress will be reported publicly every six months against “science-based targets” worked on in partnership with the Carbon Trust. 

The enterprise includes nitty-gritty operational measures, such as 100% LED lighting by the end of 2022 and replacing hard-to-recycle plastic and polystyrene packaging from own-brand ranges with recyclable alternatives by the end of this year.

But you can already hear the complainers. Well, what about third-party brands? Recyclable? That doesn’t mean everybody will actually be able to recycle it, does it? What about that?

Haters gonna hate

The doomsters will delight in picking holes, but actually consumers can be quite hypocritical.

While younger shoppers might see themselves as being pretty woke, that doesn’t mean they always put their money where their mouth is – they happily buy cheap clothes without a second thought, but want the retailers to do the heavy lifting. Boohoo is a great online retailer, but it is hardly a sustainability pioneer. It was the stand-out winner over Christmas.

Whatever their own faults, people demand perfection from others and, in the judge-and-jury world of social media-powered condemnation, faults – real or imagined– will be ‘called out’. Not just on climate change, but on a raft of issues ranging from gender and race to factory pay and working conditions.

But retailers should forget about the haters and take positive action on these issues because it’s right to do so and it’s good business.

The straws in the wind are ever more evident and perceptions matter just as much as reality. Primark, which ironically has taken huge strides over the years to address ethical and sustainability concerns, has said that how it was perceived on those issues was one factor that affected its performance in Germany.

And US lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret has been brought low because consumers have rebelled against what they see as a top-down, old-fashioned view of women. Its chief marketing officer added fuel to the fire when he told Vogue that plus-size and transgender models would never grace its famous catwalk.

Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder, is reportedly talking about standing down as chief executive and a sale is on the cards. Victoria’s Secret has suffered as shoppers turned to brands that they saw as more inclusive.

“In the last decade retail was transformed by digital technology. The next decade may be defined by a societal shift just as big as attitudes towards, and expectations of, business change”

Investors are also increasingly focusing on sustainability when deciding which companies to back.

Shore Capital analyst Clive Black noted of the Sainsbury’s initiative: “We see this move by Sainsbury’s as part of the ongoing evolution of the British food system with the context of ongoing global developments – one that is increasingly relevant to normal shoppers and not just the great and good that waltz around Davos, one that we sense will embrace all participants in time as regulation and market practices come through.”

In the last decade retail was transformed, often painfully, by the adoption of digital technology. The next decade may be defined, helped by that technology, by a societal shift just as big as attitudes towards, and expectations of, business change.

The initiatives launched by retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco make them more likely to be among the survivors and thrivers. Current trading might be important, but long-term retail success hinges on understanding what shoppers will think and want tomorrow, as well as today.