The customer isn't always right

Last night’s piece in the Unsustainable World series on BBC’s Newsnight programme made for interesting viewing (if you missed it, there’s still a few days to check it out on the BBC iPlayer).

Sainsbury’s CEO, Justin King, took a retaliatory swipe at the UK government on behalf of the supermarkets – accusing them of jumping on the green bandwagon over plastic bags, and suggesting that the real problem lies in the lack of a consistent approach to (and limited facilities available for) recycling plastics in the UK.

It’s hard to disagree with him on the first point, but I’m not so sure on the second.

Whilst current facilities are undoubtedly inadequate, the fact is that we Brits aren’t that great when it comes to recycling. It just isn’t engrained behaviour to the same extent as it is in Germany or Holland, for example, and I’m not convinced that more facilities would make the difference.

King’s comments were illustrative of a major flaw in the approach of many of the major supermarkets when it comes to Corporate Responsibility – typified by his assertion that their role is simply to inform customers and give them opportunities to make more sustainable choices.

That would work fine, provided that humans were utterly rational and could be relied upon to buy, consume and dispose of goods and packaging in a responsible fashion. However, that’s one hell of an assumption and it ignores the unfortunate truth that we don’t always want or do what is best.

King is right to highlight government failings and to suggest that a focus on carrier bags encourages a massive over-simplification of the debate. But in suggesting that the absence of recycling facilities is the biggest barrier to progress on waste reduction, he is guilty of the self same charge.

What’s more, abdicating responsibility to consumers for a critical part of the product life-cycle comes across as a massive cop-out from supermarkets’ duties and responsibilities as corporate citizens.

In an era when car manufacturers are required not only to meet stringent targets for the use of recyclable materials, but also held directly responsible for the costs of collecting and recycling any vehicles they place on the market, you can’t help feeling that the supermarkets are still being given a comparatively easy ride.

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3 thoughts on “The customer isn't always right

  1. Ed Harris

    I absolutely agree. This response to the current position of many supermarkets is reflected in the Sustainable Development Commission’s recent advice to the Government regarding supermarket regulation – the Green, Healthy and Fair report. Part of the SDC’s set of recommendations involves ‘harnessing the choice-editing capacity’ of the supermarkets – that is their ability to determine what the overall set of choices are that are available to consumers. So supermarkets need to edit the choices available in a socially and environmentally responsible way…
    More here.

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  2. Dan Gray

    Thanks for the positive comments, guys. Ed, it’s particularly nice to hear from a fellow Edinburgh alumnus, and cheers for the SDC links. If you haven’t already, you might want to check out my earlier post on learnings from UK retail sector. I’d be interested in your views.

    D.

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