Retailers committed to improving their sustainability efforts are improving their operations, reducing costs and their impact of the environment
BY STUART FOXMAN
For many businesses and cities, this is the last straw.
In the move to combat plastics waste, single-use straws are a target. One study estimated that 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s coastlines. Among those taking action is IKEA Canada, who this May stopped selling the item. The announce¬ment here came eight months ahead of IKEA’s global commitment to eliminate all single-use plastics by January 1, 2020.
Melissa Mirowski, Country Sustainability Specialist for IKEA Canada, says plas¬tic straws are symbolic in the movement to slash pollution. When you want to create a world without waste and promote sustainability, every bit counts. It’s a matter of figuring out how to re-design products or processes, what we can do without, and how to transform retail business models to save resources.
All of that weighs on Mirowski. “How can we enable consumers to live within the means of one planet?” she asks. That’s the challenge. To meet it, many Canadian retailers talk about having the right mindset. Here are five ways they’re approaching sustainability with the future of the planet in mind.
1. Think circular
Through its two wind farms in Alberta, and rooftop solar installations on its stores, IKEA Canada generates renewable energy equal to about four times the energy it consumes. The company aims to achieve zero emission home deliveries by 2025. They’re also phasing out virgin fossil plastics from products by 2030.
Perhaps their biggest move is a shift from the current linear business model. Instead, the idea is to think circular, Mirowski says. That means creating products with re-use, repair, re-purposing and recycling in mind from the beginning. IKEA aims to make all products and packaging from renewable and recycled materials by 2030.
In November 2018, IKEA also introduced a sell-back program in Canada to divert furniture from landfills. Customers can apply to sell their used IKEA items for an in-store credit. The items will then go into the store’s as-is section.
“The biggest impact we can have as a retailer,” says Mirowski, “is enabling customers to prolong the life of products.”
Quality products should be an obvious part of a sustainability strategy, says Robyn Collver, Canadian Tire’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “Create a good product in the first place, so people use it longer,” she says.
Canadian Tire’s main driver of net promoter scores is having high-quality products. The company started its Tested for Life in Canada program in 2013 with 34 products. Now it’s up to 10,000-plus. “There’s an increasing awareness that we sell products that are built to last. From an environmental perspective, I want that,” says Collver.
2. Fill in the gaps
Canadian Tire has set ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Their goal is to reduce emissions from their buildings and oper¬ations by 22 per cent by 2022, against a 2011 baseline. The company also aims to keep emissions from transportation flat, even as they grow their e-commerce and home delivery activities.
Collver says companies rarely know precisely what they’ll do, at every step, when they create bold long-term objectives. So, there are always opportunities to fill in gaps along the way.
For Canadian Tire, one example is a pilot at their Brampton Distribution Centre, outside Toronto. The DC is using hydrogen-powered lift trucks to reduce energy consumption. The same practice will roll out to the company’s Bolton, ON DC (a LEED Gold-certified building), likely in early 2020.
Such successes might inspire further ap¬plications for hydrogen use elsewhere in the Canadian Tire network. Make new efforts, says Collver, and you spark ideas for additional innovations to pilot or get to scale.
3. Be authentic
To Rob Nicol, VP, Corporate Affairs for Walmart Canada, sustainability isn’t just about projects and programs, but about an attitude. “To build a plan that flows through the entire organization, you need to be authentic,” he says.
Earlier this year, an Accenture study looked at consumer habits globally. In Canada, 57 per cent of those surveyed said their purchasing considerations are driven by a company’s values, including improving the environment and treating employees well. Consumers see through inauthenticity, concluded Accenture, and vote with their wallets.
Walmart Canada has put sustainability at the forefront of operations. For instance, the retailer has pledged, by 2025, to reduce check-out plastic bags by a further 50 per cent (taking about 1 billion bags out of circulation over that period), and eliminate hard-to-recycle PVC and expanded polystyrene packaging from all its private brand products.
The company is also working to power its fleet using 100 per cent alternative power by 2028, using Tesla semi-trucks.
More than 200 of Walmart’s Canadian suppliers have signed on to Project Gigaton. This international commitment aims to avoid 1 billion metric tonnes of GHG emissions from global value chains by 2030.
Nicol says such initiatives fit naturally with Walmart’s mantra: “Our mission is to save people money so they can live better. We hate waste.” That’s true, he says, when it comes to prices, operational expenses and the environment.
4. Engage stakeholders
Making the broadest progress around sustainability involves educating external and internal stakeholders.
For instance, Home Depot Canada hosted 647 events last year on ENERGY STAR product options and another 82 events on energy efficient home renovations. The company also worked with vendors and utility partners to increase the uptake of ENERGY STAR products through instant and online rebate programs. (In 2019, for the ninth time, Home Depot Canada was ENERGY STAR’s retailer of the year.)
Mountain Equipment Co-op, meanwhile, wants to keep as much waste as possible out of landfills. They use recyclable materials, and ship clothes tied with raffia instead of in plastic polybags (they call it “sushi-roll” packaging). MEC also recycles fabric swatches and raw material samples, turning them into fibre for furniture padding and insulation.
These practices are important, and so is staff input. Twice annually, employees put on coveralls to jump into MEC dumpsters and perform waste audits. It helps them find ways to improve. Having MEC personnel so hands-on improves the effort to cut waste.
Nicol says success revolves around two elements: operational and reputational. Make the difference you set out to make and tell the story. Customers and staff can be part of your sustainability journey. People want to be proud of where they shop or work, and their reactions can spur more action. “It becomes a virtuous circle,” says Nicol.
5. Help those in need
Sustainability is also about something else. Loblaw sells food, and Frank and Oak sells apparel. Both realize they can cut waste while lending a helping hand.
Loblaw says that Canadians toss away $31 billion of food annually, while nearly one in eight Canadians struggle to put food on their tables. The company has pledged to reduce food waste (improving procurement and shortening its supply chains) at corporate retail operations by 50 per cent by 2025. That’s good for the environment and for business.
Moreover, Loblaw has partnered with agencies like Second Harvest and Food Banks Canada, matching over 300 of its stores with local organizations to get perishable food to people in need.
Frank and Oak applies the same attitude to garments. The eco-conscious company has upped its percentage of minimal-impact products from 5 per cent to about 50 per cent, builds their stores using recycled materials, and renovates them by reusing as much as possible. They also note that North Americans throw 9.5 million tonnes of clothing into landfills every year—and 95 per cent can be reused or recycled.
With their Let’s Give a Shi(r)t initiative, Frank and Oak matches every in-store clothing donation with one of their own items. The store partners with non-profits across Canada to put clothes on the backs of homeless and low-income individuals, at-risk youth and refugees.
Ethan Song, Frank and Oak’s CEO, defines sustainability as economic, social and environ¬mental. “You have a triple effect when you operate responsibly,” he says. “Ultimately it’s about connecting the dots. Once you’re able to, companies have the power to influence in a positive way.”