More UK government action needed to help retailers go green says Iceland boss

More incentives are needed to help retailers reduce plastic and be more environmentally friendly according to the boss of a Wales-based supermarket chain.

Richard Walker, the head of frozen food store Iceland, spoke to ITV Wales' Work and Economy Correspondent Carol Green, and said the UK government needs to do more to support retailers who supply goods to people on a budget.

Iceland, which has its headquarters in Deeside in North Wales, has already taken steps to reduce its impact on the climate - removing palm oil from its own label products in 2018 and it has now pledged to fully eliminate plastic from its shops by the end of 2023.

Mr Walker says government incentives are "the only way we will level the playing field and get the pace of change as quickly as we need it.

"We are working very closely with our suppliers to try and come up with cost neutral solutions but of course we need more government intervention because we don't have time for the free market to correct itself.

"I think [we need] more sticks, more carrots, more of a framework from government so we must reduce plastics, we must stop deforestation, we must reduce carbon, we must reduce food waste. These are all frameworks that I want to see for the food industry to operate within."

Mr Walker says the company is driving forward to offer more plant-based foods to customers. On the implications that could have for Wales, with it being dependent on meat production, his view is there should be an emphasis on less but more quality meat.

"I think it's our obligation to make sure the meat we sell is as good as possible, is as local as possible and as sustainable as possible and obviously a lot of the Welsh meat producers are doing just that."

He also says the food industry as a whole has a duty to protect the environment and does not know any business leader that is not on board with doing that.

"The problem is the corporate politics of being able to do so. Some of the short-term thinking of chasing profitability, [and the] existing business models that people feel trapped in.

"I think we have a real obligation to do as much as we can to reduce plastic, to help stop the causes of deforestation, and of course to reduce carbon out of the atmosphere. So I'm determined to use the business as a platform to try and do things a bit better.

"Removing plastics is costing us millions and is certainly very challenging in the short-term. But of course what we're seeing now is a next generation of consumers, who want to associate themselves with businesses and leaders with a purpose and a brand that stands for something.

Iceland is aiming to remove all plastic from its supermarkets by 2023.

In response the UK Government has said it is a "global leader" in tackling plastic pollution and it supports retailers' aims to cut down plastic. A spokesperson said: "through our landmark Environment Bill we will have powers to make companies more responsible for the packaging they produce and be incentivised to use more recyclable materials and meet higher recycling targets.

“We are also committed to supporting people to enjoy food that is better for our health and for our environment, and the upcoming government Food Strategy White Paper will set out the government’s ambition and priorities to make the food system healthier and more sustainable.”

Last year Iceland was the first retailer to sign the climate pledge to become net zero by 2040. It has also made a commitment to halving its food waste by 2025, something Mr Walker praised the Welsh Government for on its mandatory food waste collections.

But for him it all comes back to making retail affordable and good for the environment.

"If you look at the food industry, it's responsible for 25% of all greenhouse gas globally. Industrialised agriculture has been great for providing cheap food but it's come at the expense of the environment and society.

"We have to democratise environmentalism and make it relevant and relatable to real people on a budget. I do believe it's possible, I think we're showing it is in terms of a lot of our initiatives but it's the only way we'll mainstream and scale up positive environmental elements.

"This can't just be the preserve of Waitrose customers and the middle classes, this has got to be about jobs and opportunity rather than costs and compromise."

Mr Walker says people on a budget should have greener options available to them.

With United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, Mr Walker says UK politicians can showcase how it can be a leader in protecting the environment.

"This should be a springboard for the UK government to show leadership on all of the exciting new industries where the UK could genuinely be a leader. Things like hydrogen where we have the best RND in the world, also offshore wind where we're currently the world leader but also exciting new technologies like tidal, like micro nuclear."

However he said he is disappointed that one topic is not being covered at the conference.

"Food waste I don't think is on the agenda at COP and I think it absolutely should be.

"Let's see more aggressive targets from governments all around the world on plastic reduction, taxing virgin plastics, putting in mandatory obligations on businesses to start to reduce plastics in their supply chains."

See more on this story on Wales at Six and on Sharp End at 11pm.

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