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Galen Weston to the food industry: Let's get serious on sustainability

Loblaw’s executive chairman suggests retailers and CPGs work together to tackle environmental issues and suggests what steps can be taken
Galen Weston, executive chairman, Loblaw Companies Limited

Speaking to more than 900 attendees at the Consumer Goods Forum’s Global Summit, held June 11-14 in Vancouver, Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston implored attendees to work together in some unconventional ways to make greater progress on environmental issues.

"When it comes to environmental degradation and the things that our industry produces, we have an enormous challenge. I would describe it as a generational challenge," said Weston. "Probably a challenge that will take us multiple generations to properly bring under control."

READ: Loblaw joins Loop to bring reusable packaging program to Canada

The industry is up to big challenges though, according to Weston, highlighting how retailers and consumer goods companies came together around the issue of food safety to adopt standards that fundamentally changed safety in the industrial food system. Based on lessons learned from the food safety initiative and Loblaw’s other efforts, Weston highlighted three areas that lead to the highest probability of success when striving for industry transformation.

The first, he said, is having consumers who care because it makes it so much easier. It makes it easier to implement change because there is consumer demand. The second thing, ironically enough, is government regulation. It is often complained about, but it helps to have governments who are interested in action.

“That's scary because governments can make a mess of some of these things, but they can also be very, very helpful in galvanizing change in our industry,” Weston said.

Thirdly, it helps if there is some form of economic incentive underpinning change.

All three of the conditions exist on the most topical issue in the world today, which Weston said is plastics. He cited research showing that 94% of Canadians want to reduce single use plastics and many governments are imposing fees related to the management of plastics. It’s a huge issue for retail and CPG, according to Weston, because the industry represents 33% of all the plastic waste produced in the world today. It a huge problem and a huge opportunity because it is within the industry’s ability to control.

“We make the products, we design the packaging and we make the choice on how to sell them to consumers,” Weston said. “Very few of the social sustainability issues in our industry today are that directly within our collective control. That makes it ultimately, not an easy problem to tackle, but probably the one that has the most chance of us being able to impact.”

For example, Weston suggested the industry should support harmonization of recycling programs across governmental bodies to eliminate consumer confusion and improve recycling rates. Another ideas is to embrace packaging standardization with flexible and rigid plastic containers.

“It doesn't mean that every package has to look the same. It's about materials that you choose to use and the methods that you use to put images on those materials,” Weston said. “It's not about taking the life out of marketing and merchandising packaging on the shelf. I would go so far as to say that actually it's standardization that makes our industry work.”

Weston also suggested it is wise to embrace regulatory change, because, as is often the case, failing to do so could mean it will be forced upon the industry.

“We can help constructively develop regulations that will ultimately make our jobs easier as opposed to more difficult,” Weston said. “We've all got to participate together in packing design solutions. Don't be scared of standardization, it is not the same thing as uniformity. The power to fix this is in this room, it is in our industry and it’s in our control.”

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