Sustaining sustainability, no folding player allowed

Marco Bonini
12 Feb 2020
Marco Bonini can lay claim almost 40 years’ experience in retail, both in food and non-food business, in leading companies and in various roles. To begin, a long-time experience in Standa, closing that chapter as Purchasing Director; next, he joined Coin to manage the development of specialist stores. Then, Marco moved to Sogegross to lead the Cash & Carry channel; in Codè CRAI Ovest, he took the General Manager position. Today he is Associate Partner of Retex.

Retex. Sustainability as a value itself and as a growing market demand. Then, sustainability as effective application in retail. Help me put some order in.

MB: When I think of sustainability, there are three area: environmental, social and economic. Starting from the first, some results have been achieved already. Over the last ten years, food chains reduced electricity consumption by 30% thanks to the modernization of technological systems (i.e cold chain, low impact lighting systems, energy saving). Less pollution, in short. Now, we need to work on the whole production chain to make strong sustainability-oriented agreements with producers. As for the supply chain, we cannot think of continuing to organize deliveries as in the past century – by flooding streets. In Italy, the delivery to each supermarket happens in the morning.  In the Anglo-Saxon countries, on the other hand, deliveries at night are faster and cheaper, with the same means of transportation. A lot can be accomplished, believe me.

Retex. Social sustainability, where to start?

MB. You're welcome to choose. First and foremost, the agricultural sector: payment for the harvest, in accordance with the production costs, allows those who produce to work and live in a sustainable way.

Retex: Well then, let’s get down to business: how is it possible to manage the cost of sustainability?

MB. Foreword: the retailer who aims at sustainability not only pleases consumers and stakeholders, but also gains credibility in the financial environment. And this has its own relevance. The investment, however, must be backed up by the virtuous contribution of all those involved in distribution processes. I am talking about the supply chain and logistics, and the involvement of company staff and the customer. It needs to be clear, even to those who buy, that it is not possible to expect sustainability without sharing the cost. 

Retex: Let's consider retailers: is sustainability nothing more than a tax to pay, or do some believe it is a necessary and responsible innovation?

MB. In our market, positioning is crucial. The customer wants to spend as little as possible when going to the store. Today, large-scale retail companies are investing, in terms of display space and attention, in increasing the volume of private labels. The cost of a private label product is much lower than brand products. On this premise, we can build a supply chain that allows the effective turn-around on the problem. suppliers can be involved, making them from copackers to partners - a goal declared at the Marca 2020 exhibition in Bologna - to manage a supply chain focused on common values. This way, the results would be sustainability pursued throughout the cycle, and a competitive market positioning.

Retex: Do you perceive the possibilities and advantages of sustainability in the short and medium run on typical retail processes of large-scale distribution?

MB. The further we move away from national chains and known brands, the more sustainability is affected. If everyone were to adopt modern technology in stores, the 30% less consumption would increase even more. The other issues that we need to address are different. Let’s think about transport packaging: plastic films that wrap the pallets, an excessive use of wooden crates for fruit and vegetables, or even disposable pallets. Then, the use of the glove imposed by law on a product that is normally washed, peeled or cooked. And we also have the plastic packaging used in gastronomy, plastic bags instead of paper ones, especially in non-food sector. And again, common behaviors and materials used in offices and shops. A change is possible, if desired, as early as tomorrow.

Retex: Sustainability and food delivery: between low profitability and social impact, how much can it endure?

MB. The consumer who demand the service should know that it is promoting a new "slave market". Therefore, the point is: how much are they willing to give up in terms of economy and comfort? We must give the right answer to this crucial question, and then begin a virtuous path of sustainability. Imagine if the whole proximity network did not look only at competition with local supermarkets. An indicative fact: a quarter of consumers decide what to have for dinner after 7:30 pm. If the local grocery stores had a "gastro-rosticceria" department to satisfy this late but immediate need, it wouldn’t be necessary to hire someone who goes to pick up food from a restaurant to deliver it by bicycle.

Retex: From your own experience, how much can good sustainability practices be rewarding in the market?

MB: It is a process that needs to be explained to the consumer in order to involve them. It's simple, actually: if I sell an apple farmed by an environmentally conscious and properly paid farmer and transport it to the store polluting as little as possible, it will likely cost a bit more. We can justify the price in terms of value for the consumer and future generation by making it clear. It’s difficult indeed, because these values are not immediately noticeable in a society accustomed to cope with degradation, and to consider it for unchangeable. Sustainability must be conveyed effectively and continuously. Because it means awareness and responsibility on everyone's part, no folding players allowed.