Corporate Eye

Do Tesco’s Fibs Matter?

tesco-store-signOn 17th July 2009 WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) published figures showing that the UK’s seven major supermarkets had managed to cut single use carrier bags by 48% over a two year period.

Not bad, you may think.  It’s a little disappointing as the target was to cut single use carrier bags by 50%, but in the round it’s better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick.

However when you look behind the figures a slightly different picture emerges.  Of the seven who signed up to the commitment:

Tesco’s Lies, Damned Lies…

The issue is, of course, statistics.  Tesco use one way of calculating how much they’ve cut their carrier bags, WRAP use another.  So in plain speak, they’ve missed the WRAP target.

If we assume Waitrose, Asda and The Co-Operative Group all reached 50% but not a lot more, and Safeway came in at 48%, this means Tesco’s percentage was less than 45%.

In the Times article a Tesco spokesman is quoted as saying it would be “inappropriate” to disclose a precise figure.  The article goes on to say: “Tesco said that the actual reduction had been significantly less than 50 per cent but the company was concerned about negative publicity”.

I’d say … they missed their target by over 10% when some competitors had exceeded it by nearly 50%!  Stock would crash on such an abysmal financial performance.

Benjamin Disraeli who coined the phrase

“Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”

Tesco’s Priorities

Which brings us to the nub of this story: Tesco’s priority was put public relations before comparable results.

Sustainability is often compared to accountancy: you measure what you do and then you report the results.

In the accountancy world, the last ninety or so years have seen a movement towards a common standard, with IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards) being close to becoming internationally accepted.

This trend started after the Great Depression, when it was realised that companies had to report comparable figures in order for those figures to be a) trustworthy and b) meaningful.

Businesses have long argued that there should be no mandatory imposition of sustainability rules and that the market will find the right incentives.

Despite this, last week the US SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) announced that it is considering imposing mandatory ESG (Environmental and Social Governance) rules upon companies.

Tesco, which handles one sixth of the UK economy, has hardly done the “market incentives” cause any favours.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity?

However, the most revealing part of this little tale revolves around the word “publicity”.

Despite all the papers read, TV watched, groups, RSS feeds, twits and friends followed, I heard nothing about which supermarket had cut their carrier bags the most.

However, all the wires went into overdrive the moment the Times published their story.  It all reminds me of Wal-Mart’s problem with Native American burial mounds.

A few weeks ago Wal-Mart published details of a sustainability index it was planning to set up.  The CSR types picked over it, but that was it.spare-2-billion

Then came news that a Wal-Mart subsidiary had been using a 1,000 year old sacred Indian mound as fill dirt for a new store in Oxford, Alabama.

Immediately the newswires went into action, leading to a rather questionable denial and retreat on the issue.

Do Tesco’s Fibs Matter?

So, has Tesco’s little fib been good or bad publicity?  They stand by their original statements and it is worth noting that all their carrier bags have been biodegradable since before the 50% target was agreed with WRAP.

More importantly, has it done the cause of business self regulation harm or good?  Does it make little difference, or have we entered a new era, where large corporations feel able to greenwash even Government backed targets?

Picture Credit: Spare $2 Billion? by Itzafineday from flickr under Creative Commons Attribution License.

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A former CTO, Chris has a broad and varied background. He’s been involved with blue chips, consultancies & SMEs across a wide variety of sectors and has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. In 2007 he decided to combine his knowledge of business and IT with his passion for all things sustainable and has been busy writing ever since. However, his greatest ambition remains to brew the perfect cup of coffee.

Excellent article Chris, I really enjoyed reading this.

I am concerned when I read that big companies feel the need to lie or mis-speak about the work they do, the goals they achieve. Tesco could have quite reasonably said they had fell short of the target but would try harder and everything would have been ok, why the need to greenwash? Whoever is advising them should be fired, people appreciate honesty – they may vote with their feet but they are more likely to walk away after the greenwashing and lies.

Thank you Sarah!

Corporate Communications as a whole may be the “next big thing” on the agenda. The amount of spin and marketing which floods our lives is quite phenomenal and it can often be difficult to discern the plain facts.

I wonder whether this will be the next step in the world of CSR: marketing whose truthfulness can be measured?

CSR: marketing whose truthfulness can be measured

You are on to something here Chris, that’s exactly what should be done a league table of honesty on their CSR aspect, and then consumers will really vote with their feet!

I worked for many years in an environmental organisation. it was a good organisation. we did some pretty wonderful things, some of which I am quite proud of.

Yet we couldn’t handle missing targets either. Often senior management were concerned that the truth wouldn’t look good. One CEO I knew would use the “Daily Record test”. How will this announcement read in the tabloid press?

Narrowly missing a target is neither here nor there in the great scheme of things, but playing with the truth patently is.

Why this is so common place, not just in reporting environmental achievements but admitting to mistakes generally, should be a topic of detailed research. I’d love to blame the PR people, but alas it is not so simple.

Sarah — indeed, this is the sharp end of CSR! However, I feel many people find it difficult to look at how truthful organisations (commercial or otherwise) are: it can be a lot like looking in a mirror sometimes and seeing your own faults exposed for all to see.

Philip — very nicely put! It is indeed far too easy to blame the marketing men or to attack simply spin and greenwashing.

While I was writing the blog I kept thinking back to the huge degree of cynicism which now informs everyone’s purchasing and political decisions.

It’s a horrible ball of twine and I’m not sure where or how I’d start to try and unravel it. I get the feeling though that CSR may ultimately go a lot further than simple corporate responsibility.

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