Sustainable Backlash May Hinder Industry Efforts

September 22, 2010

The case against U.K.-based supermarket Sainsbury’s for its alleged use of excess packaging is a wake-up call to retailers and manufacturers.

The case against U.K.-based supermarket Sainsbury’s for its alleged use of excess packaging is a wake-up call to retailers and manufacturers. reported the story last week, citing this is the first time that a major retailer has been prosecuted under “obscure environmental laws.” 

Retailers should be wary to note that Sainsbury’s was recently awarded the ‘Environmental Retailer of the Year’ at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) awards for its packaging initiatives, which include moving basics wine into PET bottles. The supermarket recently converted its basics cereal range to be stocked in bags rather than boxes in an effort to cut packaging. Sainsbury’s said that using bags rather than boxes for its cereals range means packaging will be cut by 165 tons every year. The move is the latest in a long line of packaging innovations that Sainsbury’s has undertaken in an effort to reduce its environmental impact. Earlier this year, the supermarket announced that it was ending its use of tin cans for its basics chopped tomatoes, in favor of cartons. 

Lincolnshire Trading Standards officers claim the packaging of its beef roasting joint was in violation of the country’s 2003 regulations that prohibit manufacturers and retailers from using excess packaging. The claim states the meat’s packaging was “not limited to the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance.” Sainsbury’s is the first supermarket to be prosecuted and faces a fine of between £500 and £3,000.

In the age of sustainability, The Lempert Report warns the industry to be concerned with such precedent. So many elements are tied to what makes a product sustainable, and while packaging is a big part of the drive toward an environmentally friendly world, it’s only part of the story. Having a clear vision of what is necessary to provide a truly environmentally friendly, socially conscious path is critical at this juncture.

The era of corporate and social responsibility sets the stage for such backlash as this  without clearly established guidelines that both the industry and regulators can agree on, there will always be room for interpretation. 

Lincolnshire Trading Standards alleged that an example of the product on sale on or before Feb. 17 this year did not meet the essential legal requirements. The investigation of the supermarket came after a consumer complaint. According to the report, Sainsbury’s insiders said they were “dumbfounded” by the actions of Lincolnshire Trading Standards. In fact, the supermarket retailer pointed out that the product in question had already seen a 53 percent reduction in its packaging since February and is expected to be reduced by another 10 percent in the next few months. 

U.K. supermarkets and major retailers are scheduled to update the government this week on efforts to cut down on packaging under the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact of the grocery retail sector.