Nutfruit Magazine

The official voice of the INC

19 November, 2021 A Chat with the Industry

Fabrizio Fabbri, Sustainability Policy Manager, European Community of Consumer Co-Operatives (Euro Coop), Belgium)

Fabrizio Fabbri, Sustainability Policy Manager, European Community of Consumer Co-Operatives (Euro Coop), Belgium)

"Coop Finland recently conducted a poll among their consumers and it showed that the top three concerns were plastic pollution, climate change, and biodiversity."

Fabrizio Fabbri graduated in Natural Science and has gathered some 30-year long experience in environmental sciences and policies. He has advised international NGOs, Italian Government, political parties and political groups at the Italian Senate and the European Parliament. He is author of 6 books and several papers on different environmental issues spanning from ocean ecology, to chemical pollution, urban waste, climate change and GMOs. Currently, he serves as Sustainability Policy Manager for Euro Coop, the voice of co-operative retailers in Europe with over 19 national members, 7,000 co-op enterprises, 750,000 employees and 30 million consumer-members.

As a co-op that represents over 750,000 employees and is governed by 30 million consumer-members, what can you tell us about consumer sentiments towards sustainable products?
There are differences among countries, and as expected, the consumers from wealthier countries tend to show more concern and are more attentive to sustainability. Coop Finland recently conducted a poll among their consumers and it showed that the top three concerns were plastic pollution, climate change, and biodiversity. Of course, this depends a lot on how well people are educated on the topics of sustainability, and especially how they perceive the need to act and move. I also saw another poll that was from a group of retailers in the Netherlands that highlighted a generational divide. Consumers younger than 30 years old tend to be more concerned with sustainability, but this is to be expected in my opinion; it is a reborn interest among young consumers to take their future into their own hands.

Do you believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to put more importance on sustainability, or has it pushed sustainability to the side?
I think that unfortunately, this is what happened; sustainability has been pushed to the side a little. In a way, I would say that the pandemic kind of forced us to take more sustainable actions, but not in a voluntary way. For example, think about all of the work from home, all the meetings that were not in-person, this has saved an incredible amount of emissions and pollutions.

However, this was not a political move, it was forced upon us. On the other side, we did not give any further consideration to sustainability during the pandemic, just think about the amount of plastic that has been used as a result of COVID-19. A good example is the plastic gloves used in supermarkets or the masks that we change multiple times a week. This will be a massive problem that we will have to deal with, and now we are seeing a resurgence in plastic applications. In the end, there will be areas of sustainability that will benefit from the pandemic, but these were not our own actions, and on the other hand, our response to the pandemic was to increase plastic use and give up the principal of recyclable materials.

Are sustainability and sustainable practices just a trend that will come and go, or are they something that will continue to grow and grow until they become a “market requirement”?
We will have to see. For Euro Coop, it has never been about following a trend. We have tried to be a leader in the area of sustainability and take actions that others can follow. Even when I was not working with Euro Coop, they were already taking action and were interested in increasing sustainable practices. So, for these reasons, I do not think it is just a passing trend, at least for Euro Coop, and honestly, I don’t think it is a fleeting trend for other retailers either for one simple reason -the market is changing.

There are plenty of examples from other giant retailers taking action almost every day to become more sustainable. I see some retailers changing their packaging, more products bought from organic farms, and once these things are changed, there is no reason to go back. Some actions don’t necessarily cost more than business as usual, but rather they are just neglected because they are not viewed as important, or we think it is more complicated than it really is. To start taking sustainable actions doesn’t always have to be a large investment, there are smaller actions that can be easily taken.

Another example could be the baking industry. Many packages in bakeries have a plastic “window” and this is purely an accessory, it is purely a complication. It is an added cost that brings nothing of value. These types of small changes can be where companies start and can even have an economic incentive. Of course, other actions require a different strategy and may need an investment.

So, if a lot of these changes are not difficult to make, what is the incentive for companies to take action? Does practicing sustainability give companies a competitive advantage? What is the reason pushing companies to be sustainable?
As I said earlier, certain actions can be taken without added costs and might even reduce costs. So, when they are not taken, the managers who are responsible for proposing these actions are simply not focused on the problem, because it is inexplicable why you wouldn’t reduce costs or keep the same cost, but do the sustainable action.

The choices that are related to sustainability need more competence; you need technical knowledge on how to for example reduce your energy consumption. There has to be an expert behind these actions. And others of course are related to the market because there are products that require added costs to become sustainable that will have to be passed to the final consumer. The result is that sustainable products are more expensive than non-sustainable products. And as long as this unbalance is evident in the market, there is a risk that sustainable actions will be taken slowly as there is not a strong market incentive.

The only thing you can hope for in a market where the costs are unbalanced is that the consumer is informed, educated, and has the purchasing power to afford a slightly higher-priced product. We have to create a level playing field for sustainable products, we must  the non-sustainable products with the real negative externalities that they are involved with throughout the value chain.

There are many social costs with non-sustainable products, like pesticides, impact on soil, impact of water, etc. Once you include these costs, the non-sustainable products might be 3 or 4 times more expensive, and there is your market incentive for sustainable products.

Is this the role of large companies? Government? Who bears the responsibility to take the step and level the playing field between sustainable and non-sustainable products?
I think these are actions that have to be taken, at least for us here in Europe, at the European Union level. This is a provision that in an ideal world should be proposed and enforced by the Commission. The problem is first that the Member States are always hesitant to take compulsory actions to do something, and secondly, there is an objective difficulty in measuring the externalities of products, but it is not impossible, because there are already some standards to compare production processes. It is difficult but surmountable.

A big problem is with the import of products because measuring the sustainable impact becomes increasingly difficult, and there would have to be some sort of border sustainability tax, that even includes the carbon emissions. This would all be in an ideal world though.

You presented at FRUCOM’s Sustainability Working Group Meeting in October 2021 where you talked about actions being taken by coop Sweden, specifically the spider web representation of the sustainability impact and the development of a digital application. Could you explain a little more what this is and how it works? Is this something that can be adopted by companies throughout the world?
This was an action taken by co-op Sweden in collaboration with some NGOs to set up some criteria for measuring products impact on sustainability. They started with 10 different parameters like biodiversity loss, climate change, soil degradation, water consumption, pesticides and chemicals, eutrophication, animal welfare, working conditions, local population, and compliance and traceability. These parameters are very clear and co-op Sweden can say if products do not meet all of these criteria, then they will not purchase the goods.

The development of a digital app and visualization allows for a clear understanding of how each product impacts these 10 different parameters. This is also available for consumers and now contains over 15,000 products. It is a massive collection of data and with regards to whether this can be adapted by other people, yes absolutely. Co-op Sweden has made this an open-source database so everyone can use it and I invite everyone to use it as a free resource. 
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