From their origin in 1914 as a Western Australian farmers’ cooperative, Wesfarmers has grown into one of Australia’s largest listed companies and employers. One of Wesfarmers’ businesses is Coles, a leading food, liquor and convenience retailer, with a presence right across Australia. The business operates more than 2,200 retail outlets, with more than 102,000 team members and approximately 18 million transactions a week.
Fairfood International first approached Wesfarmers in September 2010. Given the dominant position of Coles (Coles and Woolworths are the two leading supermarket chains in Australia), we knew this supermarket’s influence on the Australian public, and on the food and beverage industry regionally, would be significant. We wanted to know what initiatives they were taking to address issues of sustainability, and whether we could be of help.
Our engagement with Wesfarmers began in February this year, and the company is now making progress towards achieving some of the sustainability commitments they discussed with us for their Coles supermarkets since then.
In March this year, Coles published a press release that their stores across South Australia will no longer stock fresh pork cuts from producers who use sow stalls to raise pigs. This policy change was made effective as of the date of the press release, March 19, 2012, and resulted from customer feedback and the supermarket’s commitment to source sustainable products and to support the welfare of livestock. Sow stalls are metal-barred crates that house a single sow for all or part of her 16‑week pregnancy. “The floor of the stall is usually concrete, with a slat-covered trench for manure at the rear. A standard sow stall is just 2 metres long and 60 cm wide. This is just enough space for the sow to stand up in — she cannot turn around and can only take a short step forward or back”, states RSPCA Australia. The main objection to the use of sow stalls is that the close confinement and barrenness of these indoor systems can lead to stress, injury and abnormal behaviour in sows.
Furthermore, Coles will phase out the use of caged hens for their Coles Brand eggs (home brand) by 2013. As with sows, hens exhibit stress and abnormal behaviour, and are prone to injury when confined to living in a space (in some cases the size of an A4 sheet of paper) which does not even allow them the opportunity to fully stretch their wings.
In March 2011, spurred by consumer demand and the evidence that some fish stocks are declining due to overfishing and changes to marine eco-systems (it is argued that these changes have resulted from global warming), Coles asked WWF to review their wild-caught fresh seafood. The purpose of this review was to improve the sustainability of Coles’ fresh fish supply, and to educate consumers on sustainable seafood and organisations such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). As a result of the review, Coles claim to no longer source yellowfin or big eye tuna, or orange roughy, all of which are threatened species (they are overfished or are at risk of being overfished).
While Coles’ efforts thus far are to be commended, the company has the capacity to broaden the sustainable sourcing of the goods it sells.
In regard to the commitments that Coles have made to promote animal welfare, and in particular their policy changes related to the sourcing of eggs, the company must establish more solid sustainability targets. While Coles’ commitment to phase out the use of eggs laid by caged hens (for their Coles Brand eggs) by 2013 is commendable, they have not committed to phasing out the use of such eggs as an ingredient in their products (i.e. bakery goods, mayonnaise). Furthermore, Coles can broaden their commitments to animal welfare by developing policies which encompass the sustainable sourcing of lamb, duck, goose, wild meats, and all animal by-products (all dairy and honey, for example) as well.
In regard to the commitments that Coles have made to source sustainable seafood, it is commendable that the supermarket chain no longer sources yellowfin and big eye tuna, nor orange roughy, and that its’ Coles Brand canned tuna and salmon have been certified by credible certification bodies (MSC and Earth Island Institute), however, Coles states on their website that farmed fish, thawed fish and crustaceans have not been assessed yet; and that an assessment of these will take place in the coming months. We would like to see a clearer time frame put in place regarding when exactly the assessment of these goods is to take place, and when the sustainable sourcing of such goods is expected to be made effective. Also, we would like to see the sustainability profiles published of all the wild-caught fresh seafood that Coles will source, now that the WWF review has been completed.
Finally, there is mention of Coles’ efforts to ethically source palm oil on their website (Coles has been a member of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) since September of 2010, and is committed to using only certified sustainable palm oil in all Coles Brand products by 2015). As a leading supermarket chain, Coles supplies, and has access to, many commodities. It is crucial that Coles commits to sourcing other high risk commodities such as sugar, cacao, spices and soy in their Coles Brand products, which have been certified as sustainable by recognised organisations.
It is imperative that companies such as Coles publish their sustainability targets, show a clear and definitive time frame in which these targets are to be carried out and met, and that they report on these transparently and regularly to develop their brand value and gain the confidence and support of their stakeholders. This does not only show that companies have a responsibility to make towards their stakeholders, the environment and future generations, but it is also a good investment in any company’s overall success.
We look forward to continuing our dialogue with Wesfarmers about the sustainability of Coles’ food and beverage products, and we hope to see concrete commitments made progressively, and targets met, to further Coles’ transition towards greater sustainability.
Photography: Matthew Kenwrick (CC license)< Back