Earlier in the summer, we surveyed our suppliers on various environmental questions related to their production processes and energy usage as part of re-certifying our B Corp status. We were encouraged by the number of positive answers from suppliers, many of whom are really starting to think about environmental issues when it comes to production of their products. Many are using solar to generate electricity and have water conservation systems in place, and many had the data to hand, which means they are actively thinking about such issues.
However, this concern for the environment seems to disappear for many when it comes to shipping their products to retailers. For many their preferred route to market is through direct delivery of small orders direct to retailers. Some of these then use wholesalers to mop up business they cannot reach by direct means. The situation is often made worse by retailers who think they can drive a better deal by dealing direct with producers. Sadly, often, they can, which can be fatal if the producer also uses wholesalers it can often spell the end of a happy relationship! But surely the larger carbon footprint of 50 vans arriving at the back door of a shop rather than one mixed pallet of 50 brands should be a factor too. It is not, and environmentalists are seeing red!
If anything, I would say that there are more, not less, deliveries per store than there were 15 years ago. The proliferation of deliveries into retailers is a real problem for many I talk to. These are often the larger, growing retailers who have looked properly at the efficiencies of their business, but many retailers are becoming less efficient and less green than they were. Several new food agents have sprung up in recent years often with names that may make them sound like wholesalers. These are sales people selling loads of different brands for each producer to deliver a few boxes into a retailer. I was talking to one recently, who said it was a good day if they took, say, 10 orders for £60 or £70 each. That would be 10 different deliveries, whereas the sales team of any wholesaler would be adding to a delivery that is already happening. These agents make great play of the fact that retailers will only receive one invoice from them a month. But it is not the proliferation of invoices that is worrying retailers, it is the proliferation of deliveries!
We know the larger retailers are looking for more consolidation and to reduce the number of deliveries into store. This is currently for reasons of internal efficiency rather than to reduce their carbon footprint. However, I think it is time for “green” issues to start affecting buying decisions for retailers within the speciality food sector. The explosion of brands within the sector will continue. It is, I believe, time for retailers to start making a difference to the environment. Some modelling we have done suggests that consolidating deliveries through a wholesaler can reduce a retailer’s carbon footprint by up to 6 times and reduce the number of vehicles on the road considerably. Not only do they reduce food miles, but couriering small deliveries uses loads and loads of packaging. When it comes to chilled products it becomes even more extreme with millions of polystyrene boxes filling landfill sites all over the UK.
It is time for speciality food retailers to think about environmental issues in how they run their businesses before legislation forces them to do so. Time to start seeing the red warning lights and go green!