Woolworths and Sustainability

The other day I attended the Atlantic Seaboard Green Drinks. They happen every month but I was particularly keen to attend this one because the presenter was the sustainability manager at Woolworths, Justin Smith.

Woolworths always gets a hard time about their packaging, but I know that they are actually doing some really good work in the sustainability direction. I had heard a little about this at a previous event I attended, so was eager to hear more.

As I listened to the presentation, the questions asked and the answers given, I realised something. For each issue that people raised, Woolworths had already done research and put in place a strategy to address it. Many of the strategies involve fairly long time frames with targets to meet along the way. This is why we often don’t see the changes because they are subtle.

Most people go on about the packaging at Woolworths and Woolworths is aware of this issue. They have measured the packaging volume to benchmark it and have a strategy in place. But what we don’t realise is that there is a trade off. For instance, if they remove the packaging from avocado pears, the amount of waste increases 200%. So are we happy with that much waste? Which is worse?

Also, the big packaging companies are limited in what they can produce and how they can produce it so Woolworths can’t make them do things differently.

There are actually much bigger issues than packaging, water is one of them. They have initiatives in place to conserve and reuse water. They have incentive programs for staff so they are motivated to be conscious of enviromental issues.

Woolworths also understands that it has some influence over its suppliers so it encourages or enforces policies around organic farming and fair remuneration. This has a trickle down effect with sub suppliers having to tow the line as well. Their farming for the future initiative is excellent and revolves around farmers farming in sustainable ways.

Woolworths is definitely taking their responsibilities seriously and they are very happy to hear from the public. You can read more about their environmental initiatives here and feel free to email them on custserv@woolworths.co.za

Learn more about Green Drinks here.


4 responses to “Woolworths and Sustainability”

  1. Erm… I emailed Woolworths in mid Jan to complain about their packaging, particularly their home-delivery packaging from online shopping. So it is with interest that I read that you say they’re very happy to hear from the public.

    I did hear from the online shopping department immediately (on the day!) They said to click a checkbox to opt out of plastic bags, which we did. And our next shop still arrived in full plastic regalia.

    It took three weeks for the general packaging enquiry to be answered. They gave the same answer of quality over packaging. I guess it’s correct — I bought some loose fruit the other day and it wasn’t good 🙁

    But why don’t they do what they do in Spain: supermarket customers are not allowed to handle loose fruit and veg. An assistant picks your fruit, and in my experience in the two months I was in Spain, their selection was, without exception, excellent.

    Accepting the quality over packaging argument, I then asked Woolworths (on 2 Feb) why they don’t implement a recycling effort, where customers bring in all their plastic bags and hard plastic containers (all those fruit containers, it’s outrageous!), and I still haven’t heard from them.

    What annoys me is that they put up all these beautiful minimalist posters of how green they’re going. And yet I feel they’re pulling the wool over my eyes, because thick, hard plastic covers almost all their produce.

    1. I get what you’re saying and they need to jack themselves up on the home delivery issue.

      I think the important thing is to realise that these things don’t happen overnight. As I said, they have already spent megabucks baselining their packaging so that they can measure their progress. They have a goal in place of a percentage (which I can’t remember) reduction by 2012. They are looking at all options and evaluating the positives and negatives. They have set up recycling stations at certain Engen stations in the Western Cape and hope to roll out more.

      The point is that the packaging is a small part of their footprint, but it is one of the most visible. It may not look like they are making much progress with respect to packaging but in terms of their overall footprint they have made excellent progress.

      We need to educate ourselves so that we begin to understand that there is a lot more to green than meets the eye and start to applaud the efforts people and corporations make instead of shooting them down all the time.

      Woolworths has invested heavily in greening itself, let’s focus our efforts on those retailers who are doing nothing and give them a hard time rather.

  2. Customer service at Woolworths??? Woolworths scores as the second worst company – after Telkom(!) when it comes to customer service. Check it out on http://www.hellopeter.com

  3. That’s great to hear, that they’re trying to reduce their total carbon footprint. I’m always pleased when someone or a company looks deeper into the environmental issue, which cannot be solved just by reducing plastic use.

    However, that doesn’t stop me from being critical, particularly since I shop almost exclusively at their shops for fruit and veg, so they’re getting my support where it means the most to them. I try to avoid their produce that says “Imported from Kenya” and elsewhere (a lot of the green and leafy vegies) — that’s a huge footprint ito of transport fuel costs and refrigeration.

    I also don’t like that they import some of their clothing from China. Aside from the bad quality, they also charge more than other shops that also import from China (eg Mr Price), so we’re not getting the cost savings. I’d be less critical if I knew they were supporting the local thread industry.

    Still… they’re a nice place to shop at, inhouse service is excellent (phone and email service is pathetic), and aesthetics are lovely. But I’m still not convinced of their reduced waste and large carbon footprint, and until then, I won’t stop being critical of their ridiculously excessive packaging, imports from China, Kenya and elsewhere, and whatever else related to carbon footprint that catches my eye.