17 October 2012 — By the time Armineh Mardirossian finishes our chat, it is clear her role as group manager of Corporate Responsibility, Community and Sustainability at Woolworths, is as far reaching as it sounds.
She starts with buildings, but adds they are not the company’s core business.
That being said, Ms Mardirossian says there are naturally targets in place relating to carbon reduction and the company’s extensive real estate and distribution assets.
They include a target of a 40 per cent target in the reduction in carbon emissions from distribution centres and a 25 per cent reduction of carbon emissions per square metre for all stores.
The second target was part of a sustainability strategy developed in 2008 and in the 2012 financial year, Woolworths managed an impressive 38 per cent reduction, thanks in part to hard work and technological advances that quickly happened “year on year” as the conversation about sustainability opened up.
Woolworths is also working reducing its carbon emissions from logistics and travel, by swapping where possible from road to rail although this is “very challenging for fresh food” with Australia’s huge distances, Ms Mardirossian says.
Non-food products, of course, travel a little easier.
But it’s when Ms Mardirossian starts talking about product that the conversation gets really interesting.
The Fresh Food Futures program was started in 2007 with a $10 million investment into two key objectives.
“One is about advancing production, innovation and sustainability in farming and production,” Ms Mardirossian says.
“It’s about how do we grow more with less.”
The second is building capacity and supporting the next generation of farmers and producers with the average age of an Australian farmer now 58.
Woolworths is clearly behind Australian production sourcing 96 per cent of its fruit and vegetables and 100 per cent of its meat from home.
Part of trying to future-proof the industry includes supporting further educational and career development for producers and farmers.
As well, an innovation grant of $100,000 is handed out each year to one project to improve fresh food production or packaging.
One recent grant resulted in a horticulture carbon calculator – perfect timing as the carbon tax made its way onto the landscape.
Woolworths is also a strong believer in offsetting to create net zero deforestation involving forestry derivatives like paper and cardboard and the company also recently become the first major Australian retailer to achieve membership of the Forest Stewardship Council.
The retailer already sells a number of FSC certified products including an exclusive range of outdoor timber furniture at BIG W and more than 500 lines of FSC certified timber and panel products at Masters Home Improvement.
In addition, the company has announced its first own brand products to achieve FSC certification – Home brand toilet paper and facial tissues.
See our story: Woolworths in FSC move for products
As well, in 2009, the supermarket became Australia’s first to commit to moving its own brand products to 100 per cent sustainable palm oil and in 2011 launched its sustainable fish sourcing strategy.
The second move has seen Woolworths join up with the not-for-profit Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, an organisation which carries our sustainable assessments on fisheries, along with part funding the fishery which supplies the store’s banana prawns to help it obtain certification.
Ms Mardirossian says the company wants “to protect all supply chains” including those overseas which leads her to the ethical sourcing of products.
“We look at labour welfare and rights in countries where sometimes governance can be a bit loose,” she said.
“We don’t source a lot of food from developing countries but we do source non-food products.
“For example China has production facilities that are state-of-the-art but we do have an audit program in place to ensure basic human rights are met.”
Animal welfare is another area under strict control.
“We again have a number of criteria for livestock which pretty much covers everything from egg and chicken, to meat and pork.
“We have also increased our fair trade certified products over the years. Now we have our own brand Macro coffee and chocolate and are looking for more Macro product.”
Ms Mardirossian says customers “want to do the right thing” but perhaps fairly, expect the store to take away the guess work.
“They expect you to do the work for them. That’s them saying ‘I trust your brand’. I think that’s a fair expectation.
“You take the difficulty of living sustainably out of their lives.”
Mr Mardirossian says, on the whole, customers also don’t want to pay more for sustainability although some products, which involve animal welfare, create a willingness to pay a premium.
“People buying free range or organic will pay a premium – it first in with their values.”
And Ms Mardirossian’s role with Woolworths, working with a small corporate team of four, also fits in with her own values.
“I would like to make the world a slightly better place and I think I am contributing, at least a little bit.
“And the influence a company like Woolworths can have on the supply chain can transform the market.
“And give customers the ability to make the right choices.”
Ms Mardirossian was born in Iran and completed secondary studies there before moving to Australia, joined the organisation in 2007 moving from Landcom, the NSW state-owned corporation, where she was in the property development sector in the role of director of Sustainability and Policy.
She studied chemical engineering at UNSW and has postgraduate qualifications in management from Monash University.