A new forum has been launched to tackle the environmental footprint of everyday goods, from cradle to grave.
The Product Sustainability Forum (PSF) brings together more than 80 organisations that are taking a collaborative approach to reducing the environmental impacts that arise from making and selling their products.
The forum's members include many household names, such as most supermarkets, Crown Paints, Heineken, Muller and Nestle, as well as trade associations and professional bodies that are providing technical input.
They all believe that apart from reducing costs by sharing best practice on supply line efficiency, they will make their businesses leaner and more sustainable in the light of future resource scarcity and increased costs.
The forum has been set up by WRAP following discussions with industry and governments, and is chaired by its chief executive, Dr Liz Goodwin.
She said: “The scale of the challenge is enormous. For example, the British Retail Consortium estimates that the retail sector alone accounts for around 3.5% of the UK’s carbon emissions, and the retail supply chain for more than 30%."
Greenhouse gas emissions are not the only impacts to be assessed and reduced; there are also water use, reliance on raw materials, waste and packaging to come under the spotlight.
This is not some abstract idea. A report out on Tuesday found that resource scarcity caused by unsustainable growth is taking its toll in human life. At least one person is being killed around the world each week in battles for land, natural resources and forests in the world's poorest countries.
Global Witness, a human rights group focused on the exploitation of natural resources, said at least 106 people were killed in 2011 alone.
Bob Gordon, head of environment at the British Retail Consortium, called the project “truly ground-breaking," and described it as helping “businesses find the best ways to manufacture, transport, store, display and dispose of a wide range of products so they have the smallest possible impact”.
The immediate priority is assessing the available evidence of the current state of best practice, and examining, in the first instance, grocery and DIY products, where it is felt that there is the most opportunity for improvement.
“Many companies already measure the environmental impact of their products but until now, this has always been done in isolation," continued Dr Goodwin. “The methodology and results have not been shared. By working together, we have a real opportunity to minimise the effect our activities have on the planet.”
Andrew Kuyk, of the Food and Drink Federation, said: "It is only through this sort of collaborative action that we will achieve the scale of change required, here and in other markets where we are competing to supply sustainable, safe and affordable food."
Speaking for the technical side, Martin Baxter, who is responsible for policy at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, said that he wanted to "make sure that companies have the capability to use the information generated through the research to identify the hotspots where it's beneficial to take the most effective action.
“It's one thing to understand what they are but they need to have the skills and know-how to know what to do to make an improvement and, if successful, to communicate it along the supply chain."
He also emphasised the collaborative nature of the forum and said that it was up to members to decide how much information they declare and to whom.
With Heineken and the Wine & Spirit Trade Association on board, are we likely to see our favourite drinks boasting that they have become lighter on the planet “in places where others can't reach"?
Baxter said it was for companies to choose how much they disclosed to the public as well. “They have to be open to defend their claims under the code of practice on green claims" so must be rigorous and evidence-based.
He added: "The bigger brands want to improve all of their product lines, but they will target different categories, as it is a more effective way of collaborating because it speeds up the process". He congratulated WRAP for its good work on catalysing the forum.
Speaking on behalf of Heineken, Richard Naylor said that the firm had been a signatory to the Courtauld 2 WRAP initiative on reducing packaging, since 2010, from which this forum has evolved. “Heineken has a global sustainability programme and we have identified several hotspots which include packaging, cooling at the point of display, distribution abroad and manufacturing.
“These were identified as a result of work on carbon footprint in carried out with the Carbon Trust. The next step is to figure out how to tackle these hotspots." Work on minimising the impact from growing wheat, barley and other ingredients, and greenhouse gas emissions due to shipping is being done in Holland.
This is the first collaboration of its kind in the UK. “It’s pretty unusual – if not unique – to see so many major organisations and brands working alongside one another and sharing best practice in order to find ways of making better use of all our resources,” said Dr Goodwin.
“This demonstrates just how seriously organisations are taking the issue of sustainability and the impact of their manufacturing and retail processes.”
A report which identifies priorities for action will be published in the autumn, along with plans developed by member organisations to tackle these, the publication of which do not breach commercial confidentiality.
As well as its focus on key products sold to consumers in the UK, the PSF is forging links with other national and international organisations to share learning and avoid duplication of effort.
“This is particularly important for organisations which have markets and operations beyond the UK, as well as bringing benefits to other groups and countries keen to address the environmental impact of their own products,” Dr Goodwin added.
The following organisations have supported the Product Sustainability Forum since its inception in 2011:
The Product Sustainability Forum is also supported by Defra, the Scottish government and the Welsh government.
Story: David Thorpe, News Editor