Over the past few years the retail sector has arguably done more than any other industry to promote green business practices and the importance of sustainability. Through green labels, onsite renewables, waste reduction campaigns, and an emerging ethical consumer market, the UK's retail giants have played a key role in normalising more sustainable behaviours amongst their customers, staff and suppliers.
But on occasions the carefully constructed green mask slips and it becomes plain how far the retail sector still has to go if it is to embrace genuinely sustainable business models. One such occasion occurred yesterday when the British Retail Consortium attempted to spin a new report from the Environment Agency detailing the carbon footprint of different carrier bags.
The detailed report analysed the full lifecycle carbon footprint of a variety of carrier bags and concluded that the most popular bags-for-life only have to be used four times to ensure they have a lower carbon impact than single-use bags (rising to nine times if the single use bag is reused as a bin liner or 12 times if the single use carrier bag is re-used three times – as I say, it is a remarkably detailed report).
By any reasonable reading, the report, which does not even take account of litter and other environmental impacts, vindicates the shift towards reusable bags and the long-running campaign to reduce the number of single-use bags in circulation. Unless, that is, you work for the British Retail Consortium and have spent much of the past few years opposing any policy measure that may further curb the use of plastic bags.
It is worth quoting the statement released yesterday by British Retail Consortium sustainability director Andrew Opie at length:
"We're pleased to see the Environment Agency's report acknowledges single-use carrier bags can have less impact than the alternatives. Yes, the plastic bag has become symbolic but this report confirms it is not the great environmental evil some would have us believe.
"Agonising over bags misses the point. There are much bigger targets supermarkets are helping customers to work on, such as reducing food waste. To obsess over bags distracts consumers from making bigger changes to their habits which would do more to benefit the environment.
"Retailers and customers cut bag use by 4.6 billion a year between 2006 and 2010, despite sales increasing during the same period. Handing out bags-for-life and encouraging customers to re-use them is a big part of that. Efforts to cut down bag use will continue but they must not be the only focus."
Opie's argument has plenty to recommend it: "agonising over bags" does indeed distract from more significant environmental impacts, retailers have indeed made great strides in reducing the use of single-use bags under a voluntary regime, and cutting down bag use should not be the only focus of their sustainability efforts.
But the argument that the report confirms plastic bags are a "symbolic" issue and "are not the great environmental evil some would have us believe" sounds misguided at best and churlish at worst.
Plastic bags come in pretty low in the league table of "environmental evils" when compared to carbon-spewing tar sands projects or catastrophic oil spills, but try telling those who have seen the giant swirls of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean that their campaign against plastic bags is little more than symbolism.
In addition, does anyone seriously believe retailers would have cut bag use by 4.6 billion a year between 2006 and 2010 if it had not been for front page headlines and ministerial threats of bag taxes? Plastic bags may have been a "symbolic" issue, but they were an extremely valuable symbol, proving that consumers do indeed care about environmental issues and that some of the country's largest corporations can be forced to shift their business models in response to pressure from customers, green groups and politicians.
Finally, if you are being cynical, you could argue that if retailers really believed plastic bags were a harmful "distraction", they would be doing a lot more to promote the environmental issues that we should care about.
Opie namechecks efforts to tackle food waste and I'm sure some progress has been made. But every supermarket in which I shop continues to offer huge numbers of products pre-packed in wasteful plastic that also ensures my household of two has to buy produce that has been designed for the average 2.4-children families – no matter how skilled a cook you are the result is unnecessary food waste. Meanwhile, efforts to tackle carbon-intensive global supply chains, resource-depleting factory farming, and ultra-disposable consumer products remain a million miles from where they need to be if we are to build a genuinely green economy.
Retailers have taken huge steps towards sustainability in recent years, but they do themselves and their customers no favours by underplaying the significance of the highly successful campaign against plastic bags.
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