Over the past few years, many consumers have begun to feel a sense of urgency in the need to change their behaviour. This comes from their desire to do their bit to help tackle such as resource scarcity, climate change, sustainable farming and deforestation.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Spending 2013.
More and more people prefer to spend a little bit more in order to buy Fairtrade or organic products. In 2012, the Fairtrade Foundation reported a 19% sales increase in Fairtrade products. Organic products have also experienced good performances in 2013, according to the Soil Association. But this doesn’t just mean that farmers or smaller companies selling ethical products have seen their sales going up.
In fact, mainstream retailers have started to pay more attention to the way their products are sourced, processed, sold and wasted. Figures from the Soil Association related to organic goods show that supermarkets play an important role in the organic food sector.
After researching the sustainability policies of seven major supermarket chains – Co-operative Food, Marks & Spencer, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – what is undoubtedly positive is that all mention the most crucial issues.
Meanwhile, some deserve special credit because of unusual initiatives, aimed to restore the natural environment, tackle food waste or promote green energy in stores.
We have outlined five categories used measure the efforts made by the retailer sector on sustainability: energy efficiency and use, waste management, sustainable agriculture and sourcing, social responsibility and animal welfare.
Energy use looks at the way in which the retailer is managing its carbon reduction targets and its efforts to save water and energy through energy efficiency measures in shops and across the supply chain, as well as investment in renewable energy to power the stores.
The Co-operative, Tesco and M&S scored the highest marks in this category, thanks to their clear commitment to addressing climate change and cutting their carbon emissions.
Waste management is another important pillar for M&S and Co-op – the only ones to get a full score for this category. Among the most important criteria to assess the retailers’ policies were recycling, plastic bag policies, food redistribution, reduction of waste to landfill and customer engagement to reduce waste at the consumption stage.
Food waste in particular is quite a serious issue, as recently revealed by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap). Despite a small improvement compare to the past, British families are still throwing away 4.2m tonnes of food every year. In order to reduce the amount wasted, retailers have been asked to do their bit.
All seven brands have a programme to redistribute unsold food to people in need or to reinsert it into the production process again, by using it to produce energy through anaerobic digestion – this is what Waitrose does – or animal feed.
Some of the big brands, however, are not doing enough to reduce the use of plastic bags – one of the most common causes of marine pollution – or to raise awareness among customers on how to avoid food waste, through clear information and labels.
M&S is the only retailer to have introduced a charge on plastic bags, with the profits derived from this policy given to charity.
Co-operative and Waitrose lead the way when it comes to sustainable agriculture and sourcing with big emphasis placed on sustainable products and attention to the natural environment.
Waitrose collaborates with the Woodland Trust to plant trees to absorb carbon from its deliveries and works with its farmers to ensure they manage the wildlife habitat and the soil responsibly. Co-operative also asks its suppliers to protect the UK’s wild species that are threatened by intensive agriculture, such as bees and farm birds. All suppliers have started to address the challenges posed by the massive use of palm oil, which is leading deforestation in Asia and Africa, and all are signatories to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Co-operative, M&S and Waitrose also have clear and exhaustive commitments to animal welfare, with focus on free range and hormone-free policies, responsible fishing and a ban on animal testing for their branded products.
The retailers also show an awareness of social responsibility: the availability of Fairtrade products, workers’ protection and a focus on healthy eating. Waitrose deserves special mention, as its employees are not just workers but partners who democratically own the business, as members of the John Lewis Partnership.
Despite an array of positive policies, there is a large margin for improvement for each retailer. It should give us hope to know that some of the places where we usually shop are aware of crucial issues affecting the environment and the society.
It not only means that we, as citizens and consumers, have the power to push for positive changes, but also mean that the businesses we buy from know they have this power, too. It is a circle where everyone demands and obtains better practices, to preserve and improve the way the world is run.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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