European Retailers Adopt Voluntary Sustainable Business Code

I have to bite my tongue when I hear people claim how progressive Europe is when it comes to sustainability and consumerism.  Take Amsterdam, where in May I worked and traveled for two weeks.  True, bicycles are everywhere, public transport works, and you can find great locally grown food.  But step into an Albert Heijn supermarket, and you will see that the capital of tulips and bicycles is also the capital of processed food, over-packaged in plentiful plastic.

Walk along the Kalverstraat or Leidseplein, and Amsterdam, just like any European city, offers plenty of retail therapy to make the heartiest shopper blush.  And that retail therapy includes discount clothing giants like C&A and H&M.  Now a coalition of retailers, from IKEA to Carrefour, have a announced a Code for Environmentally Sustainable Business.

This coalition between the European Retail Round Table (ERRT) and EuroCommerce claims that it is committing retailers to improve their operations in six areas:

  1. Sourcing, by promoting more environmentally sustainable sourcing and production of products.
  2. Resource efficiency, by improving the environmental performance of the retailers’ premises.
  3. Transport and distribution, by improving the environmental performance of distribution and where the retailer does not operate its own fleet, working with transport providers, as well as by supporting the sustainable mobility of customers and workers.
  4. Waste management, by putting in practice measures aiming to prevent or reduce the impact of waste on the environment.
  5. Communication, that is, encouraging more sustainable consumption and which promote responsible consumer behavior regarding product use and disposal.
  6. Reporting, by regularly reporting on the above commitments, which to some may seem like cheating, so let’s just say there are 5 areas.


If these proclamations all sounds very vague and broad at the same time, that is because they are.  The code is completely voluntary, and in an economy that as an aggregate is larger than that of the United States, so far 21 chains and 7 retail associations have signed up.

It makes for great public relations and “We Care” campaigns, but so far the Code as it stands has not explained how participating companies can measure and compare their efforts.  And as for reporting, there is no agreed upon standard.

Many European retailers are already adopting such measures with or without such a codeMarks & Spencer is reducing energy consumption in stores by about 20%, and Tesco has a distribution center powered entirely from renewable energy sourced from food waste.  Other retailers are reducing the carbon footprint of their packaging.

For now, the Code for Environmentally Sustainable Business is a document establishing laudable goals, but is not achieving much more than shrugged shoulders because it has no teeth nor a detailed plan of action.  Most likely this is because of the reality of which retailers are keenly aware, tucked into a document’s footnote:  a large consumer survey indicated that quality (67%) is most important for making a purchasing decision, followed by price (47%)—environmental impact is only the leading concern for 34% of Europeans.  Perhaps a better strategy for these retailers is to instruct and lead their customers as to how sustainability can lead to a good price and high quality—not a choice of one or another.  So that item #5, communication, will be the retailers’ greatest challenge.

Let’s check in a year from now to see the effects, if any, this code may yield.  I personally am looking forward to that item #6, reporting.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

2 responses

  1. I have to bite my tongue when I read half-informed articles. So you stayed 2 wks in Amsterdam? I do not think that food at AH is any more packaged than in any American Supermarket, on the contrary. But you are overlooking another thing, too. Whereas I get a feeling that Americans feel that they can trust heavily packaged things more because they are “cleaner”, this is not true in Europe and influences people's purchasing behaviour. There are plenty of supermarkets and small shops where you can just buy your veggies without any packaging.
    This is however, similar to another article of yours in which you regret that Amsterdam has very few drinking fountains despite its good drinking water. Well, that's also because, unlike America, people do not need to eat or drink constantly. They do survive if they do not have a coffe/iced coffee/water available at all times. It is also about a different culture, not just different availability of water fountains.

    Having said this, I agree that we need to re-focus on the environment and make efforts to further reduce our impact on the environment.

  2. What makes you think this is half-informed? -this was not an attack on Amsterdam, nor was this a comparison of one country vs another–this was based on observation that the DUTCH and expats explained to me while I was there–not based on a casual observation. I had plenty of locals complain about the lack of decent drinking fountains and the quality of food in Amsterdam–

    It is true that there are plenty of stores that are not offering products that are over-packaged– just as what exists in American cities and towns. But the truth is that shopping habits are changing around the globe– and European and Asian markets are selling more over-packaged and processed foods–that is just the fact–and based on how busy these stores were and the lines I saw at the supermarket, these chain stores were thriving.

    And what is up with the 1/2 informed fact that only Americans eat or drink constantly? Based on the shops featuring take-away foods all over Amsterdam, Tokyo, Madrid, Rio, and other cities, “eating and drinking constantly” is hardly a unique American habit. I saw plenty of shops selling take-away food, and I have to say it wasn't just obese Americans queueing for a “Turkish pizza” or cone of chips.

    The difference, of course, is that the Dutch don't have our obesity rates because they bike and walk everywhere.

    I always love it when a national of another country feels like an American can't comment about his or her country and then turns around and says snarky things about the US. I welcome comments and criticisms visiting folks make about LA, CA, and the US, and feel free to reply in kind.

    But that's okay, the Dutch can't help their pallid food. You're not Mediterranean or Latin.

    And stop pitting your olives, for Pete's sake! That removes the flavor!

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