Ben Cooper met the head of environment at the British Retail Consortium Bob Gordon

Ben Cooper met the head of environment at the British Retail Consortium Bob Gordon

Last month's Sustainability Watch featured comments by renowned food policy expert Professor Tim Lang casting doubt on the suitability of the supermarket distribution model for providing locally sourced food. In the second part of this Sustainability Watch, Ben Cooper discusses the local sourcing challenge with Bob Gordon, head of environment at the British Retail Consortium.

As last month's Sustainability Watch interview with Professor Tim Lang bore out, raising the issue of sourcing local food inevitably prompts broader questions regarding the sustainability of the supermarket distribution model.

Lang sees local as a 'proxy' for the move towards a more sustainable food supply and believes today's highly developed supermarket distribution model is antithetical to providing locally sourced food at scale.

However, just how central local sourcing is to an overall assessment of the sustainability of supermarket distribution is a matter of debate.

Bob Gordon, head of environment at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents the UK's major supermarket chains, believes local sourcing has to be seen in the context of the multitude of sustainability issues which major food retailers are addressing.

BRC members are looking to reduce impacts "across the life cycle of the product", says Gordon, from production, manufacture, distribution and use to disposal.

"Transportation - food miles - is just one part of that. Food miles are an issue but actually it's one issue in the context of the whole life cycle, and in a large number of cases food miles really isn't the big contributing factor in terms of emissions or environmental impact."

Gordon suggests in many instances local sourcing is a community issue. "It's about people thinking they're buying local produce, supporting local farmers. When we look at sustainable food, we've got a much bigger piece to look at across the entire life cycle of those products." Local, he continues, is "an important element but it's not the be all and end all".

Indeed, he adds that such is the efficiency of the supermarkets' distribution systems that a local product may sometimes have a higher impact.

"There will be lots of instances where there's something that's had to travel further that has a lower footprint than something that's local but the retailers will do that anyway because of customer demand."

The sustainability challenge must also be about "building more resilient supply chains", Gordon says. Supply chains have become more global "because that is more resilient".

He continues: "With climate change, more extreme weather events, we've less reliability from any particular local source, so retailers are building international, resilient supply chains that regardless of local weather patterns in any particular area of the world, can continue to get good value, good quality food on the shelves."

Interestingly, resilience features in a matrix of "multiple values for a sustainable food system" which Lang included in a Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report entitled Looking back, looking forward: Sustainability and UK food policy 2000-2011, published earlier this year.

But some recommendations in the report clearly placed emphasis on local production and sourcing, and on alternatives to the national distribution model of food supply.

For example, it recommended an inquiry into how to rebuild and support the small farm sector and part-time farming. It also recommended that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) consider how to build skills, research capabilities and infrastructure to support thriving small business food sectors such as local "food hubs".

Looking at the broader relationship between retailers and suppliers, but certainly relevant to the local sourcing issue, was the recommendation that the Groceries Code Adjudicator should "operationalise sustainability as a key theme in redefining how markets work and what is meant by efficiency and market power".

Lang expresses doubts about the capacity of governments to deliver rapid change. Policy, he says, may achieve slow incremental change but, echoing Harold Macmillan, he suggests it is "events" that force radical development and, with climate change, the world is facing precisely that sort of event.

However, his report suggested some promising policy moves towards promoting a more sustainable food supply chain had stalled in a state of "suspended animation" after the 2010 election.

The fact that the SDC, an independent, non-departmental public body established to advise the government on sustainability, has now been disbanded perhaps tells its own story.

Food 2030, the food sustainability strategy published by the previous government, was "ground-breaking in providing a cross-government framework towards a sustainable food system and had wide stakeholder buy-in", according to the SDC report. While this work had become "becalmed by a ‘not invented here' attitude", the report welcomed the more supportive stance taken towards the Food 2030 process more recently.

The current government is more inclined to leave industry to find its own solutions to sustainability issues.

Transport is certainly a hotspot. According to Defra, around 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK food chain in 2010 could be attributed to commercial transportation of food for domestic consumption, which brings the focus once again back to local sourcing.

However, Gordon says the food retail sector is making progress.

According to the most recent progress report on the BRC's Better Retailing Climate sustainability platform, between 2005 and 2010, BRC retailers delivered an average reduction in transport CO2 emissions of 18%, accounting for the volume of goods transported and turnover, meeting the 2013 target three years ahead of schedule.

"So, efficient systems have become even more efficient," Gordon says.

But, regardless of these strides, does Lang's assertion that these nationally-orientated distribution systems are simply not suited to significant local sourcing remain valid?

Gordon concedes that the model may "not be completely appropriate for local" but adds that the retailers are "doing an awful lot to try and build in flexibility and opportunities to source more local food." For example, retailers are arranging for suppliers to be able to deliver direct to stores and setting up flexible contractual terms.

Moreover, he reiterates that while the national distribution model may not be perfectly adapted for local sourcing, it is well placed to meet the ever-escalating need for greater sustainability overall.

"These are hugely efficient models. It's a very efficient system becoming more efficient all the time," Gordon concludes. "We're developing technologies to be sustainable and there's flexibility to allow local supply."

So once again, discussion of local sourcing leads on to questions of the overall sustainability of supermarket distribution.

Gordon may be right in asserting that food miles are only part of the equation and local sourcing should be seen as one element in the sustainability debate but this is clearly a high-profile issue.

Moreover, one of the key reasons why supermarkets have been so keen to develop and highlight local sourcing initiatives, even though they represent a very small part of their business, is because such programmes play very well with consumers. However, this not only gives retailers that important imperative but suggests the public may also view local as a proxy for sustainable.