A year after they went carbon neutral, The Warehouse Group’s chief sustainability officer reflects on the journey so far and the work that is still to be done.
It was a year ago that the red shed made its biggest commitment to going green in its 38 year history. The Warehouse Group – comprising local retailers The Warehouse, Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming and Torpedo7 – was one of the first big New Zealand companies to achieve carboNZero certification last February, a move hailed as “vital” by climate minister James Shaw. “This is one of those areas where actually the private sector is moving well ahead of political leadership,” he said at the time. “I think our politicians have got some catching up to do.”
For David Benattar, chief sustainability officer for The Warehouse Group, the move towards carbon neutrality was an obvious one. “We have a long history of caring for the community and the environment, so those values and that mindset have been instilled from the get-go,” he says. “The ‘why’ can be seen throughout everything – our culture, our values, our leadership, our team members and our customers.”
An added motivation for the change was the volume of climate strikers demanding action around the country. “We just looked at all these young people asking for what they want and walking the streets,” says Benattar. “Proportionally, we protested more than most countries, and along with New Zealand being on the forefront of climate action legislation, we were really in tune with that and keen to move in the same direction.”
Moving in that direction meant taking the ambitious step to make the company carbon neutral through purchasing carbon credits and making systematic operational changes. “We knew the source of our carbon emissions and the amount, so from the moment we made the decision to become carbon neutral, it took about 6-8 months to put the programme in place,” says Benattar.
The net emissions, 40,000 tonnes of carbon a year, was calculated from various sectors of the company including operations, electricity, and non-trade suppliers such as logistics and fulfilment. The current figure does not include the carbon emissions created during the production process itself, but Benattar is quick to acknowledge that this is something being looked into for future calculations.
Even still, 40,000 is a lot of tonnes. How does a behemoth offset that back to zero? “A large aspect of being carbon neutral is to invest in projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere in the same amount as our emissions,” says Benattar. “We have invested in gold standard carbon offsetting projects in countries that we operate in such as Bangladesh and China. These projects have co-benefits – they remove carbon from the atmosphere but they also benefit people in the communities around them.”
“I think that’s a really important lens through which to see sustainability actually, because it paints a broader picture and makes us understand the interconnection between the environment and society and community.”
While offsetting is a step in the right direction, Benattar says The Warehouse Group’s priority is now is a 32% reduction in total emissions by 2030. “We have a lot of efficiency incentives that are already resulting in a lower carbon footprint, like efficiency in operations or logistics and fulfilment,” he says. Simple changes like switching 71 vehicles to electric (with more to come) and swapping in-store lights for LEDs saw a 4% drop in total emissions from 2018-2019.
Businesses taking proactive measures to reduce their own footprint serves as a signal to the rest of the sector, says Retail NZ’s Greg Harford. “It sends a very strong message that the big dogs in town are not only taking this seriously but says that their customers are looking for it… Other retailers are now looking hard at their carbon footprints and their supply chains and how their packaging and can be minimised and recycled.”
That said, the sustainability journey hasn’t been without its challenges. “We’ve definitely made some progress, but the reality is that we still operate in an economy that has been designed around burning fossil fuel which generates carbon,” says Benattar. Freight partners of The Warehouse Group are currently working to decarbonise their entire fleets by 2030. “Of course it is challenging to make that shift to decarbonise an entire industry.
“Everyone has to work together for this transition period which takes drive, willingness, support and collaboration.”
The Warehouse Group’s ongoing work with its suppliers to cut back on carbon emissions is in keeping with their latest areas of focus – products, packaging and the creation of a circular economy. By 2022, over 20,000 retail items will be labelled with at least one sustainability credential, be it the packaging, the amount of recycled material in the product, or the recyclability of the product itself.
“It’s about creating an eco-system where resources are constantly reused to create new materials and new value, which again requires a full system change,” says Benattar. “New operations, new logistics – you will see some of that manifest in stores in our soft plastic recycling schemes, or on the shelves on the products themselves.”
Although New Zealand is world-leading in its climate legislation, Benattar believes that business has just as much of a responsibility as central government in taking environmental action. “We are in an era now where business has accepted the role of leadership and business and government have accepted the concept of partnership. We are a business, yes, but we have used our size and the number of people we interact with every month to accelerate this transition.”
“There is a collective desire to move to a new world, it’s just that the transition period is painful.”