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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 June 2007, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
How green is your High Street?
By Adam Harcourt-Webster
BBC Money Programme

Should producers or consumers make the choices?

The giants of Britain's high streets are spending hundreds of millions of pounds going green, and millions more telling us - the customers - about their plans.

But what are their real motives? Are they really trying to save the planet or have they all just spotted a big new marketing opportunity?

Marks and Spencer's (M&S) chief executive, Stuart Rose, is convinced that companies like his must take decisive action now to help tackle climate change.

"You have to be a serious 'flat-earthist' in 2007 to believe that something is not going on," he says. "Our children will have to reap the whirlwind, so I don't believe we can't do anything".

M&S, through its much trumpeted "Plan A" programme, is spending more than £200m to become a greener business.

Friends of the Earth's director Tony Juniper welcomes any steps to advance the environmental cause, but remains sceptical of the motives behind the recent High Street conversions to the green cause.

"These big public listed companies are not driven by ethics or the environment," he says. "They're driven by profit and bringing a return back to the shareholders.

"Are these companies going to save the world? I don't think so."

Green growth

The conflict of interest identified by Friends of The Earth is not accepted by Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Britain's biggest retailer, Tesco.

He sees no conflict between "green" retailing and making money.

"You can be green and grow," he insists.

"And I think if you look into the future you may have to be green in order to grow."

Many High Street stores have launched a range of initiatives, which claim to make their businesses and products more environmentally and ethically responsible.

Tesco has also committed itself to labelling every one of its 70,000 products with details of its "carbon footprint", and promised to slash carbon emissions from its stores by 75% in the next few years.

The debate at the heart of the greening of the High Street is simple: how far are companies willing to go in following the green agenda if it has a detrimental impact on their sales?

Or is a move to greener practices and products actually a smart business decision? Consider the following examples:


By Ben Limberg

When did you last look to see where your food has come from?

Our supermarkets stock apples from New Zealand, asparagus from Peru and beans from Kenya, and hundreds of other lines that have been brought from all over the world.

It is estimated that the food in an average shopping trolley has travelled 100,000 miles. Only a small but significant proportion is imported by air, the rest coming by boat and lorry.

Many products can be grown in the UK, but only in season. Now we have become used to having these products all year round, and this increases our reliance on bringing in goods from abroad.

Do we need to import apples or can we grow them locally?

But as awareness of the environmental impact of flying in goods grows, so it has become a priority for the supermarkets to try to reduce it.

Is it that simple?

If supermarkets stop importing from developing countries then it could have a detrimental impact in those countries.

Chris Charter is a strawberry farmer in South Africa. He has built a successful business exporting strawberries to UK supermarkets and is concerned that if they stop importing his goods it will damage his local community where he employs 300 to 400 people.

"I would have to lay a lot of these people off," he says.

"We've done internal surveys amongst our own people, and we've established that for every bread -winner here there are 2.8 people that depend on them."

The Market Leader

Sir Terry says Tesco has vowed to cut down on flights.

"We will transport less by air," he says.

"We don't use it very much. It's only about 2% I think of our total shipments... and we've said we'll halve that."

This means that it will still be importing some 700 items by air, which some critics think is still too high.

"It is mostly fresh produce and many of those items, fruit and vegetables, could easily be grown in the UK," says Chris Goodall, the author of How to live a low-carbon life.

"We don't actually need these imported air-freighted fruit and vegetables and should stick to national produce."

Locally grown

But confusingly, British grown produce is not necessarily more energy efficient. There are approximately 900 horticultural producers in the UK using glasshouses that are artificially heated.

Tomato farmer Nigel Bartle in Norfolk has five acres under glass. He grows 190 million tomatoes a year.

To help him do this he also has 30 miles of piping to maintain a suitable temperature. To improve their growth and quality Nigel also pumps in carbon dioxide. This extends the growing season from two months to eight.

But he has a unique way of sourcing this added heat and CO2.

"We are next to a sugar factory, which has a little power station," he explains

"We re-use the heat from it. Once the heat has been used for processing sugar we pipe it across into the nursery here to keep the place warm."

He does the same with the excess CO2, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere from the factory.

But Mr Bartle is in a minority in using waste energy. Other producers use enough extra energy in their greenhouses to supply 55,000 homes for a year.

Labelling solutions?

Tesco wants to give its customers more label information on the carbon footprint of its products.

It is an ambitious target.

"It'll take a long time, but I'm confident that we'll get there," says Sir Terry Leahy.

"I think it will be a very important contribution, and essential I think to allow people, to allow consumers, to make choices for themselves."

The experience of Boots the Chemist shows how difficult it might be. It took its team of five £250,000 and two months to measure the CO2 emitted while producing and transporting just two of its shampoo products.


By Penny Palmer

We bury 16 million tonnes of waste in landfill sites each year, and packaging alone accounts for over a quarter of all this waste, or 4.6 million tonnes.

Crop spraying
Not all local production techniques are environmentally friendly

More than half of packaging is plastic, which can take hundreds of years to break down and can release harmful chemicals into the environment during the process.

In the past year, high profile campaigns by newspapers and the Women's Institute have addressed the over-packaging problem. Consumer awareness is at an all time high.

The retailers who sell us this packaging have come under increasing scrutiny.

"The more that people try and up their recycling goals at home, particularly plastic, the more they seem to be left with," says ethical shopping expert Lucy Siegle.

"That has deflected back onto the retailers."

The retailer

Mr Barry recognises that M&S customers want to see change.

"They want great quality products that look good, that taste good, the very highest quality," he says.

"But they're also increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the packaging."

M&S's response has been to include commitments to reducing packaging as part of its Plan A manifesto. It has committed to reducing the number of plastic bags it gives away by a third over the next three years. And it has promised to reduce its food packaging by 25% over the next five years.

But critics believe it could go further. "Considering the amount of food packaging that's on M&S products at the moment, arguably it should be more," says Lucy Siegle.

Rival retailer Asda is going further, having promised to reduce own-brand food packaging by 25% by the end of this year.

Dominic Burch of Asda says reducing packaging is good for business too.

"That's a pretty tough target, but there's a huge financial benefit," he says.

"We reckon it's worth around £13m to us in terms of the money we'll save by not using that packaging".

Asda is running a 1950's-style greengrocer trial in its Southport store. Fruit and vegetables are on sale "loose - without packaging" to customers.

Since their trial started there has been a 30% increase in the sales of 'muddy spuds' and other loose vegetables.

M&S, meanwhile, has taken the plastic packaging off some of its produce, and has been running a similar trial in a store in London.

But for some critics, these commitments on their own do not go far enough.

"I would be slightly wary of any retailer who is saying we're just going to do our own brand," says Ms Siegle.

"Why aren't they looking throughout the supply chain. It has to be a whole concept in the store, not just on their products."

Green packaging.

Retailers cannot get rid of packaging entirely, since it protects products, which thus get to the consumer in good condition.

And surprisingly, if packaging was abandoned altogether, then the amount of food waste could increase, which in turn could have an adverse environmental effect.

Rotting food is a major source of methane, a gas which contributes to global warming.

After reducing the amount retailers use as much as possible, the next step is to try and ensure what they do use can be reused or recycled.

High Street retailers are experimenting with green packaging. For example, M&S has introduced compostable salad bowls and high-tech composite materials for its sandwich packets.

But is it enough?

The efforts that retailers are making to reduce packaging are a start, but it's going to take some time before the problem is solved says Ms Siegle.

"It's not something they can do over night. You know they have a dependency on packaging. We all do, and particularly on plastic."


By Elliot Choueka

In the rush to prove their green credentials, Britain's retailers have launched a series of energy efficiency initiatives in their stores. But critics question if they are doing enough.

Tesco, the country's biggest retailer has promised to halve the amount of energy it uses per square foot in its buildings by 2010; it is committed to reducing by 50% the carbon it emits from its buildings by 2020; and it is planning to cut the emissions from its delivery fleet by using bio-fuel and electric delivery vans.

Fish in Whitstable
Will consumers pay the true cost of fish?

For some critics, the use of wind turbines and solar panels on Tesco buildings is merely window dressing.

"The solar panels on the roof of a store are probably going to produce less than 1% of the electricity used by that store," says Mr Goodall. "Therefore it's just a gesture, a highly visible symbol of Tesco's commitment to the new low carbon world¿ but it doesn't mean very much and it's never going to mean very much."

Tesco is also experimenting with new energy efficient technologies at four of its "environment stores". They have doors on fridges, energy efficient light bulbs and a system for retrieving the cold air lost from fridges which is re-used in the air conditioning.

That, says Tesco's Trevor Datson, saves "something like 10% to 15% of the energy that we need to cool our stores by reclaiming this cold air from the refrigeration".


By Adam Harcourt-Webster

Sustainable sourcing of the goods they sell is one of the most important issues facing the supermarkets. Customers are demanding that more of what they buy is sourced in an environmentally sustainable way.

In the Shetland Islands, supermarkets are tackling the problem of sustainable sourcing of cod, Britain's favourite fish.

Our love of cod has contributed to an ecological disaster. Since the Second World War, more and more fish were trawled from the North Sea and the other seas around Britain: more than the cod stocks could bear. At its peak, up to a quarter of a million tonnes a year was being caught. Last year British fishermen only caught 9,000 tonnes.

Around Britain we have hunted cod to the brink of extinction. WWF's expert on fish, Tom Pickerell, says "the stocks are at historic low levels and the fisheries barely economically viable".

Supermarkets used to sell masses of cheap cod with little regard for its sustainability.

But now the cod has nearly gone, some supermarkets; Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Tesco; are taking action.

They now won't take any cod caught from the North Sea, and will only buy cod that that has been caught from sustainable stocks.

Alison Austin, head of environment at Sainsbury's, acknowledges that supermarkets have had to change.

"The whole issue of sustainable sourcing of seafood is critical to what we are as a business," she says.

"We've sold fish in the past, we're selling fish today, and we definitely want to be selling fish in the future.

"So that means we have to take action now."

In the Shetland Islands, Johnson Seafarms has set-up the world's first commercial cod farming operation. The fish are farmed organically in pens in the open sea. It supplies Sainsbury's and Tesco.

In the first year we produced just under a million fish," says Karol Rzepkowski, who set-up the operation three years ago. "We sold the lot".

Emphasising its sustainable credentials, the cod is marketed as "No Catch Cod".

"It's the right product for the right time," insists Ms Rzepkowski. "What we farm is in essence wild cod. We can guarantee a delivery of that fish every day, which fishermen can never do."

But farmed organic cod is expensive to produce. It takes three years to rear a fish. Farmed cod retails at almost twice the price of other fresh cod. Also it is doubtful if farming can on its own meet current demands for cod.

And it is not just cod that is under threat.

The WWF believes that globally the problems over fish stocks are very bad.

"It has been estimated that 75% of fish stocks are actually over-exploited," says Tom Pickerell, adding that "90% of the oceans' top fish - fish such as tuna, marlin, cod, flounder, halibut - have actually gone."

Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer and Asda have announced that by 2012 they will only sell sustainable sourced fish.

But will all this be enough?

If the fish we eat is going to be sustainable in the future, then it is going to become a much rarer and more expensive food.

The question is: are customers going to be willing to pay the true cost?

The Money Programme: how green is your High Street, BBC Two Thursday 28 June at 2100.

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