Coles' concept store at Moonee Ponds in Melbourne minimises packaging. Image: Coles

Coles has set itself a lofty goal of becoming “Australia’s most sustainable supermarket” and put its reenergised green ambitions front and centre of its latest ad campaign.  This level of ambition is exactly what we need, but The Fifth Estate knows better than to take a glossy advertisement at face value. Here’s a cursory look under the hood.

The sustainable Coles of the future has already arrived at Moonee Ponds, a trendy inner Melbourne suburb north west of the CBD.

At the concept store, shoppers refill reusable containers with their laundry soaps, shampoos and liquid soaps at designated stations.

Herbs come in paper, not plastic, and customers carry their goods home either in a reusable cardboard box or a reusable bag made with 80 per cent recycled content (with at least 20 per cent of that dredged from the sea).

Needless plastic packaging has been given the flick: items like chilli punnets and mini cucumbers no longer come in those plastic packages (but why did they ever?), and the store uses water misting and other novel strategies to keep produce fresh without plastic.

There’s also a coffee cup recycling station and a collection point for those dreaded soft plastics at the front of the store to be turned into useful items like furniture. An on-demand fruit chopping and juicing service is also meant to reduce food waste by using produce when it is at its ripest.

The renovation itself came together sustainably, with more than 80 per cent of construction waste to transform the store diverted from landfill and recycled over the duration of the project. The building is also harvesting rainwater off the roof, and capturing waste heat from the refrigeration system to help warm the store.

The new store also features locally sourced products, according to the company, including an “artisan cheese nook” packed with cheeses made in Melbourne and surrounds.

According to the supermarket giant, Moonee Ponds is just a taste of what’s to come. The idea is to learn what works, and what doesn’t, and transplant these learnings to its 800-plus other stores around the country.

image: Coles

Digging deeper

The concept store serves as a sort of brick-and-mortar vision board for its broader sustainability goal, which it’s broken into two streams: “together to net zero”, which is all about bringing its own emissions and waste profile down to zero and as well as targeting “zero hunger”.

The second component is called “better together”, and is focused on its supply chains and stakeholders.

On climate change, the company has committed to net zero by 2050, which is widely considered too late to mitigate the worst of climate change but, in fairness, is still more ambitious than any target the federal government has managed.

The supermarket giant though has interim targets, which is a good sign, including reducing combined Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions by more than 75 per cent by the end of financial year (FY) 2030 (from a FY2020 baseline).

By 2025, the company plans to run its supermarkets and other facilities on 100 per cent renewables.

It will do this through power purchase agreements, onsite solar and agreements with renewable electricity generators. Earlier this year, it signed an agreement for large-scale generation certificates with Lal Lal Wind Farms near Ballarat, Victoria, that will last until the end of 2030.  

On waste, which is a serious concern for supermarkets that have been criticised for their big contribution to food waste on the basis of aesthetics and needless use of single use plastics for pre-cut produce, it’s had to revise its landfill diversion targets.

According to the latest sustainability report, the company was working towards a decent target of diverting 90 per cent of its waste from landfill by 2022 before hitting what it cited as disruptions to the recycling industry. This followed the introduction of China’s National Sword Policy and slow adoption of advanced waste-processing options outside of major cities in Australia for sluggish progress on this target.

It’s now aiming to divert 85 per cent of waste from landfill by FY2025.

The food retailer does have some interesting partnerships and innovative projects on the boil to reduce waste and transition to a more circular business model.

For example, it’s looking at a local advanced recycling facility in Victoria to recycle soft plastics. The plant, which is being considered as part of a joint feasibility study, would use Licella’s breakthrough technology that turns plastics back into oil to make more plastic.

It’s also decided to stop selling single-use plastic tableware products and become a founding member of the Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands Plastics Pact, which is a set of sustainable packaging targets.

On food waste, food that’s no longer good to eat is donated to farmers and animal or wildlife services, organics collections or goes through in-store food waste disposal equipment, and edible food to food rescue organisations such as SecondBite and Foodbank.

Its donation programs feed into its final “together to zero” ambition to “fight hunger”.

As well as the donations programs, the company also wants to provide food and funding for people experiencing disasters and maintain its tradition of “best value food and drink solutions” to keep the cost of living low.

Part two of the company’s plan is all about stakeholders: team members, farmers, suppliers, customers and communities. The company’s Australian-first sourcing policy remains firmly in place, as you’d expect, and it has a bunch of other programs underway such as expanding its range of healthy products.

Something that is unclear is if the company plans to use its sizeable influence to cut emissions in its supply chain like Britain’s biggest retailer, Tesco, committed to do last week.  

So why the big sustainability campaign?

On the “why””, the reenergised sustainability agenda will likely appeal to investors, with the appetite for companies that are genuinely aligned with the SDGS and performing well on ESG growing fast.

This will all come down to the authenticity and the execution: As noted by finance publication Firstlinks, if the company can “show that their strategy isn’t just another ‘greenwashing’ exercise, then that will bring them into a lot more portfolios”.

Coles was contacted for comment but The Fifth Estate did not receive a response at the time of publish.

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