UK grocer to spend $1.3 billion to lower carbon emissions to a net zero by 2040

Key Points
  • There are undoubted challenges for big businesses aiming to reduce their impact on the environment.
  • The sheer scale of these operations means that sweeping changes can take a while to come about.
Dinendra Haria | SOPA Images | Getty Images

One of the U.K.'s biggest grocery chains plans to invest £1 billion ($1.3 billion) across 20 years to reduce its carbon emissions to a net zero by 2040.

In an announcement on Tuesday, Sainsbury's said the money would focus on cutting carbon emissions, plastic packaging, food waste and water use. At the same time the business will look to increase sustainable practices such as recycling.

In order to lower its carbon emissions, Sainsbury's said it would boost its renewable energy usage but cut down on overall energy use. The percentage of its fleet using "alternative zero and low carbon fuels" will be upped to 20% by the year 2025, while a greater use of natural refrigerants and "innovative technology" will make fridges more efficient.

To help achieve its aims, Sainsbury's said it would work with the Carbon Trust – a not-for-profit focused on the transition to a low carbon, sustainable economy – to "assess emissions and set science-based targets for reduction," with public progress reports issued every six months. More broadly, the company said its targets would align it with the Paris Agreement's goal to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

On the plastics front, Sainsbury's said it would halve its use of plastic packaging by 2025. By the end of this year, it will replace polystyrene packaging and dark colored plastic — which is tough to recycle — with "recyclable alternatives."

The business said it would recycle a larger amount of its own operational waste and "continue to expand and provide facilities to help customers recycle unwanted clothing, metal cans, glass, paper, batteries and other materials."

The CEO of Sainsbury's, Mike Coupe, said the company had "a duty to the communities we serve to continue to reduce the impact our business has on the environment."

Commenting on Tuesday's announcement, Mike Childs, head of policy at Friends of the Earth, said it was "encouraging" to see the supermarket "stepping up to the plate on the climate emergency — the rapid transition to a net zero economy is urgently required."

"Supermarkets have a huge influence on our personal carbon footprints, so the more they can do to embrace and promote greener lifestyles the better for us all," he added.

Sainsbury's is the latest U.K. retailer to announce efforts to become more sustainable. Last week Tesco — the U.K.'s biggest grocer — said it would stop selling multipacks of tinned food wrapped in plastic.

Instead, it will sell the tins individually, with customers able to purchase plastic-free multibuy deals instead. This initiative will start being introduced to stores from March, with Tesco claiming it will help remove 67 million pieces of plastic.

Grand ambitions, but big challenges

While the ambition of these aims is laudable, there are undoubted challenges for big businesses looking to reduce their impact on the environment. The sheer scale of these operations means that sweeping changes can take years to come about.

Take energy consumption. Tesco, for example, purchased or generated more than 3 million megawatt hours of renewable energy in 2018/19. In the same period, non-renewable energy consumption amounted to more than 6.1 million megawatt hours. In its sustainability update for 2018, Sainsbury's said that 17% of its electricity was derived from renewable power purchase agreements or onsite renewables generation.

In another sector, the Inter Ikea Group recently said it would invest 200 million euros to accelerate its transition into what it describes as a "climate positive business."

The group, which among other things develops and supplies Ikea's product range, said the money would focus on two areas: investing in schemes "aimed at removing and storing carbon through reforestation and responsible forest management"; and using renewable energy in its supply chain.

Again, there is work to be done if Ikea is to achieve its goals. In its sustainability report for the 2018 fiscal year, Ikea said its climate footprint was estimated to be 26.9 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This is an increase of 2.8% compared to the 2016 fiscal year, a rise Ikea put down to "the growth of the Ikea business."

In the report, Ikea also noted that "decoupling" its growth from greenhouse gas emissions would "take time," adding that it expected emissions to "increase for a few years before decreasing."