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The Warehouse Group talks sustainability, accessibility and $20 tents

Three weeks ago, New Zealand’s largest listed retailer announced it had gone carbon neutral, but at the same time, it was being criticised for stocking ultra-low-cost camping gear which consumers had abandoned at a music festival. We asked The Warehouse Group’s chief sustainability office David Benattar if sustainability is truly possible for mass market retailers.

By Sarah Dunn | March 7, 2019 | News

David Benattar, The Warehouse Group’s chief sustainability officer.

Everyone loves a music festival, but dismantling camping equipment and packing it away isn’t most festival-goers’ idea of a good time. Hundreds of people attending Raglan’s Soundsplash festival in January avoided this labour by simply walking away from their gear – products from The Warehouse, which currently sells the two-person Navigator South Sleepout Tent for $19.00, were reportedly well-represented among the detritus.

In subsequent media comments, The Warehouse Group insisted that while its camping gear is accessibly priced, it was never meant to be single-use. This begs the question: Is it realistic to expect consumers to treat low-cost items as anything but disposable? Is sustainability compatible with mass-market retail? And how much responsibility should a retailer be expected to take for any given product once it’s left the store?

The Warehouse Group’s chief sustainability office David Benattar says the group is interested in the answers to these conundrums too.

“At The Warehouse Group we’re fully aware of what we do, we don’t have our heads under the sand.”

Benattar’s appointment to his current role in October 2018 was the first sign of a year-long marketing and communications push intended to boost consumer recognition of The Warehouse Group’s efforts to become more sustainable. Its February campaign announcing it has achieved carboNZero certificationis the first above-the-line advertising campaign promoting an environmental program at The Warehouse Group. 

He acknowledges the group hasn’t always focused on telling its sustainability story to consumers, and says it’s battling is a lack of trust as it seeks to educate them: “There’s this demonisation of big business when big business can be an agent of change and education.”

However, internally, Benattar says the group’s campaign notifying the public about its becoming carbon neutral boasted the highest staff engagement on social media of any campaign ever.

It’s clear to Benattar that generational change is now making sustainability a key consideration for all retailers, as Millennial and Generation Z consumers put their money where their mouths are. Companies like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop flew the sustainability flag for previous generations, he says, but they were comparatively small and niche – today, change is sweeping across the mass market too.

“We understand we’re dealing with a complex multigenerational issue. We’re aware of that need [to address sustainability concerns], we’re putting staff resources and money behind it.”

The success of US outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia shows sustainability at scale can be done, says Benattar. Patagonia’s mission statement includes a commitment to “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”. It’s well-known for its early switch to organic cotton and campaigning activity.

Benattar is confident The Warehouse Group can pivot towards prioritising sustainability, saying the company has a history of “doing things for the right reasons”. He’s excited about the opportunities represented by the lack of large-scale domestic competition.

“It’s more difficult in our segment and therefore, the opportunity is bigger to do it.”

He believes the shift to sustainable business practices will see The Warehouse Group “lead the change”. Among his goals are to see 80 percent of the group’s waste diverted from landfill. The first stages of a product stewardship initiative are already underway.

It’s Benattar’s goal to eventually offer end-of-life solutions for every product category sold by The Warehouse Group’s brands. Currently, its product stewardship programme focuses on e-waste, and has accepted used whiteware for recycling through Noel Leeming since 2007. Since 2014, it has accepted old mobile phones for recycling at The Warehouse or Warehouse Stationery stores; and has been taking used printer cartridges and toner for disposal through Warehouse Stationery since 2009.

Benattar says it’s now focusing on cutting down plastic waste by tackling product design: “Plastic is where climate change and climate neutrality was 15 years ago.”

“We understand more about the negativity of waste and now it’s a chance to address this.”

The international trend for ‘naked’ products popularised by retailers like Lush and, more recently, Foodstuffs, has been interpreted by The Warehouse Group as “frustration-free packaging”.

“It’s fascinating to see how much change there is, it’s exciting,” Benattar says. “Retail is about change, the velocity of change.”

Another part of the solution to waste reduction lies with consumer education and public behaviour, Benattar says. He describes litterers as “people not interested in their responsibilities as citizens”, and calls for a “system change” whereby New Zealanders take more responsibility for the waste they create.

Benattar says New Zealand as a wider community has banded together to address negative behaviours such as tobacco consumption in the past, and will need to do the same to combat plastic waste. He calls for other retailers to also increase their focus on sustainability initiatives.

“It’s naïve to assume The Warehouse Group can do it by itself.”

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