On 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:
- Marks and Spencer reduced their carrier bag usage by 83%, Sainsbury by 58%.
- Waitrose, Asda & The Co-operative Group all said they were on course to cut by 50%
- Somerfield’s information is out of date by at least a year
- and Tesco said they had met the 50% target. Then, in The Times, they admitted they hadn’t.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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