DRESDEN, Germany (FNS) -- Retailers are adopting more policies designed to protect the environment but at the same time consumers are becoming less passionate about "green" issues, according to speakers at the third CIES International Conference on the Environment here.
The dichotomy means retailers must be cautious about how aggressive they are in promoting "green" issues to their consumers -- or risk alienating them, speakers said late last month.
Consumers' declining interest in environmental issues was confirmed by a CIES survey of 74 retailers and 81 manufacturers, said Marco Thyssen, a consultant to the CIES organization. The survey found that eco-labels are available at only one-third of retailers surveyed and that only 8% seek or encourage them.
"In some countries, eco-labels add actually nothing to the appeal of a product at all," Thyssen said. Retailers took a divided view of the future of such labels, with one-third believing they will become more important and one-third saying the labels will become less important. Another third actually had withdrawn the "green" products they had been offering.
" 'Green' is still an underlying aspiration of consumers, but it has lost the punch it had in 1991 through 1994," Thyssen said. He warned, however, that the seeming drop in retailers' interest in "green" issues could stem from the growing sophistication of their environmental policies and the progress that's already been made.
The survey found that 85% of the companies polled said they had an environmental policy in place -- 92% of manufacturers and 75% of retailers. Of these, 42% have had an environmental policy since 1990, 26% developed it in the period 1991-1993 and the remainder implemented it within the last 18 months.
Of the companies that responded, 72% had full-time environmental officers. The survey found the key environmental issues continue to be waste and packaging, refrigeration, energy, recycling and environmental management systems, Thyssen said.
More than 75% of companies surveyed now recycle pallets, packaging, paper and board and plastics, with 48% of retailers returning transport items in dry groceries and 65% in fruit and vegetables.
Environmental audits are becoming increasingly widespread, with 46% of respondents conducting them. In addition, 85% of the companies have some type of energy-saving program.
"The place of environmental policy has become more mature since our first survey in 1991 and is now an integral part of the way companies think," Thyssen said.
"These issues are of vital concern to retailers and great concern to manufacturers. The companies are communicating less with consumers, but are doing more."
Alison Austin, senior environmental manager at J. Sainsbury plc, London, stressed, however, that companies still have a long way to go.
Sainsbury has begun to implement best practice guides, both for its internal operations and for its suppliers, that cover such issues as waste, transport, energy savings and refrigeration. The company published its first environmental report on its operations in September with the target of realizing energy savings of $1.87 million (1.2 million pounds) a year.
Other initiatives include urging fruit and vegetable suppliers to implement crop management systems. Currently, half of all the crops Sainsbury sells are grown using such systems and the target is 73% by the end of 1997, Austin said. In refrigeration, Sainsbury has begun searching for alternatives to hydrochlorofluorocarbons and began using ammonia as a primary refrigerant in May 1995.
Sainsbury plans to roll out the ammonia system to two more stores this year.
Delhaize Le Lion, Brussels, Belgium, has implemented some similar policies -- including the trial of ammonia as a refrigerant -- and also has undertaken a consumer information program as part of its environmental policy.
Philippe Stroobant, one of the company's executive directors, said Delhaize sends information on the environment each month to 100,000 consumers as part of its company magazine.
Other steps include the introduction of reusable shopping bags in 1992. Customers initially pay about 8 cents for each bag, but are then given a free replacement. By the end of last year, 15% of Delhaize's volume was packed into reusable bags.
Delhaize also has cut its use of packaging by building recycling facilities for bread, meat and fruit and vegetable containers and for returnable beverage containers. The 60,000-square-foot sorting center for bread and meat containers is just outside Brussels and enables Delhaize to reuse an average of 45,000 crates a day, Stroobant said.
As a result, the company has cut its usage of cardboard by 18,000 metric tons and its use of plastic by 975 metric tons. It recently opened another, 65,000-square-foot facility outside Brussels to recycle reusable beverage containers. The problem at the moment, however, is that the containers are not of a standard size and as a result the facility has not yet reached break even, Stroobant said.
And while consumers may be less interested in "green" issues, Delhaize continues to roll out eco-products. Its long-term goal is to have these account for 10% of total sales, Stroobant said.