A pragmatic approach to plastics for retailer, Central England Co-operative

Like many retailers across the UK, Central England Co-operative has been re-evaluating its plastics strategy in a bid to reduce its plastic footprint and meet customer demands. But the retailer was unclear where its core focus should lie. Central England Co-operative tasked Resource Futures with helping to identify key plastic priorities that would serve customers, while delivering the most significant environmental benefits.

Working closely with the sustainability team, Resource Futures designed a pragmatic approach drawing on the methodology of a ‘materiality assessment’. The approach pinpointed the primary issues for internal and external stakeholders, the principal plastic products to prioritise as well as the most promising solutions.

The pragmatic approach of Resource Futures has helped us make a tangible dent in our plastic footprint. The process offered a really good balance. We engaged with all our important stakeholders while considering the evidence and scale of our environmental impact and where gains could be made.

It was robust without making this an onerous, unmanageable undertaking that would delay our ability to act as swiftly as possible. We’re really pleased with the results.”

Hannah Gallimore, Corporate Responsibility Manager, Central England Co-operative

Objectives

From the outset of this project, it was clear that both the general public, colleagues and management at Central England Co-operative were highly engaged in the topic of plastics and their impact on the environment. However, with so much happening in plastics and retail and conflicting sources of information, the retailer sought assistance in assessing the problem and potential solutions. A logical and research-based approach was needed to identify priority areas specific to the business that could inform future direction. Resource Futures set about devising a holistic methodology that would consider both the products stocked and internal business usage.

The objectives were:

  • To provide Central England Co-operative with a methodology for dealing with its plastic footprint; identifying short and longer term priorities
  • To advise on where the strongest environmental gains could be made
  • To gauge perceptions among key stakeholders and understand their needs and wishes

Approach

The methodology was designed with a pragmatic outlook and included: engaging with the stakeholders’ concerns, considering the evidence around marine litter, assessing Central England Co-operative’s associated impact and responsibility and proposing potential solutions for the future within a competitive context.

A collaborative process

As an organisation, Resource Futures likes to work collaboratively with clients. This set the tone for the project and both teams worked together at key milestones to agree and refine the process for optimum results.

Stakeholder mapping and issues scoping

An early step was to agree key stakeholder groups to consult. Resource Futures used surveys and focus groups to gain an in-depth understanding of the issues of importance to each stakeholder group.

Applying domain knowledge of plastics

The Resource Futures team has extensive experience around single-use plastics (SUP) and other plastics issues having conducted detailed research for Defra, the Scottish Government and other high-profile organisations. High risk items were identified with the client team in terms of potential environmental and social impacts and the quantity used in their commercial operations. This included: wet wipes, crisp packets and cigarettes. Some key marine litter items were immediately dismissed because The Co-op has already addressed them, for example by only selling cotton buds that have paper sticks rather than plastic. Internal plastics consumption was also reviewed, including plastic cage wrap used to transport goods, plastic flower buckets and office supplies.

Sales data analysis

A detailed review of sales data allowed the team to estimate the main areas of single use plastic in the business.

Assimilating the data streams and reporting

With multiple data inputs, Resource Futures then devised a scoring methodology to bring the diverse data sets together in a meaningful way. This included correlating the volume of plastic items with the associated importance of them to key stakeholder groups and each product’s likely environmental impact. A visual report with infographics provided clarity to the client around potential priorities and decision-making points.

Products shown are illustrative only and in no way represent data from Central England Co-operative or any other client.

This example infographic shows how product priorities can be revealed through materiality assessment.

Identifying potential solutions and future proofing next steps

A final step in the process was presenting the findings to senior management together with an overview of potential solutions and accompanying case study examples. A review of competitive activity highlighted how other retailers were responding and an overview of international policy showed the direction of travel of future regulation. This highlighted avenues that are aligned with future Government policy and broader industry action.

Lastly, the team provided pointers for messaging to highlight key areas of stakeholder importance and guidance on environmental communication that is often a sensitive area of publicity.

Outcomes

One of the primary benefits was the pragmatic, visual approach that allowed key stakeholders to easily engage with the information presented and make decisions with confidence. This clarity enabled the client to capitalise on the quick wins while starting the process of longer term planning. The evidence-based approach meant the team could focus their efforts on reducing areas of high environmental impact that were also meaningful to their customers.

“We’re implementing changes that could reduce our internal plastic usage by up to 85%.”

Luke Olly, Energy and Environment Lead Central England Co-operative

Two key areas for improving single-use plastic use were identified from internal usage:

  • Cage wrap used extensively on a single use basis to transport bulk products around stores
  • Flower buckets used only once to transport flowers

This has driven significant changes:

  • The existing non-returnable flower buckets are being replaced by a new scheme, which will mean buckets are back hauled, returned to supplier, cleaned and reused.  With an estimated 3,000 buckets per week, this constitutes a substantial saving of Single Use Plastic
  • Single use cutlery, cups, takeaway boxes and sauce packets have been almost eliminated from the staff canteen
  • Senior leadership are tackling other areas such as cage wrap and coffee cups

Project Information

Services involved

Circular economy

Waste and resources strategy

Data and tools

Team involved

George Cole
Senior Consultant

Emma Burlow
Head of Circular Economy

Archana Pisharody
Consultant

Carla Worth del Pino
Junior Consultant

Katie Powell
Junior Consultant

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