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Retailers should be proud of their achievements despite the critics

Retailers are among the most pro-active businesses in contributing to society and developing their activities to become more sustainable. But the industry’s achievements and the positive role it plays in the UK have continued to be underestimated. By Glynn Davis

Retailers should be proud of their achievements despite the critics

This was the view given by Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, when addressing attendees of the recent British Retail Consortium Annual Retail Lecture 2011 in London. He told the audience of retail executives: “Retailers more than any other [businesses] have understood the role we play in society and we’ve been able to demonstrate how responsible businesses can be a positive part of society. But the importance of retail is still not fully recognised in government.”

He believes the industry has a “proud record of a century or more” of contributing widely to society and that we should applaud these achievements. “We should be loud and proud of what we’ve achieved and we should be bold about what we do in the future,” he suggests.

This lack of recognition of the industry’s accomplishments is all the more surprising when you consider that its activities across a number of fronts fit remarkably closely with the objectives of the government’s ‘Big Society’ grand plan. 

Regardless of how you choose to define the Big Society King put some of the core elements as aligned to: improving skills; supporting SMEs; reducing carbon usage and protecting the environment; improving the quality of life and well-being of people; and supporting your community.

Which King says are the “core elements of Sainsbury’s responsibility objectives”, before adding: “It’s clear our industry is on this turf and has been for some time.” He highlighted the many positive effects the overall retail industry is having on society, which include its continued record of employment creation that has also involved embracing women and disabled people in the work place.

He argued that retailers had also played a part in trying to address social harm – in particular alcohol abuse among younger people. King pointed to various retail-led initiatives including Challenge 25 and Drinkaware as having a positive effect.

The industry has also aggressively sought to reduce the resources it uses, with the major retailers having dramatically cut the lorry numbers that it uses for food transportation. And there has also been a move to make healthy eating easier for consumers with the GDA scheme developed and voluntarily adopted by the industry.

Not surprisingly King argues for a voluntary approach to responsibility by the government although he adds that direction from it would be useful in specific circumstances. He cites the many different recycling regimes around the country as being unhelpful in driving greater recycling behaviour, which could maybe be clarified by some government input.

The desire for consumers to act in a more sustainable way certainly fits in with the moves being undertaken by the retail industry and King predicts that both parties will move increasingly down the road to greater sustainability.
“Consumers are willing to go to places where they’ll pay more. We need clear communications to consumers that if they invest more of their money [in certain products] then good will be achieved,” he says, pointing to sustainable fish and ethically sourced foods from British farmers (who work to high environmental standards) as examples of increasingly more attractive sources of goods.

King predicts that over the next generation these trends will be fully played out with the result that a greater percentage of people’s disposable incomes will be spent on food but that this will be on less volume: “People will eat less volume of food but of a higher quality.”
But despite the good retail is doing for society the supermarkets in particular continue to receive criticism from many quarters over their continued aggressive rates of growth and the impact this has on high streets around the country. King was quick to defend their activities and argues the case that the opening of supermarkets can have a more re-generative, rather than destructive, effect on town centres.
“I’d challenge the politicians...who say we destroy town centres. We’ve 200 stores on the high street and the vast majority of our [other] space is adjacent, linked to, or a short trip from the town centres,” he argues.

While many businesses complain about the competition from the major grocers King says they, along with the food discounters, can show their presence has a re-generative effect in towns: “If we’re such a bad thing then why do hundreds of retailers want to put their business next to ours?”

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