Tesco’s head of environment has climate anxiety. ‘It’s hard not to after working in sustainability for 17 years.’ But inside the retailer, she’s taking action

On the Thai-Cambodia border, at the age of 23, Anna Turrell had a road to Damascus moment. “I’d studied anthropology, my master’s was in anthropology of development and social transformation, I’d done a few stints voluntary work with the full intent of going into international development.” 

But while building a hospital in Cambodia, the donor’s money ran out, leaving Turrell with just one conclusion: “I just thought: there’s got to be a more efficient way of driving positive societal change that is not dependent on a one entity dictating the terms of how another group of individuals will respond.”

The realisation drove Turrell away from international development and into the private sector. Roles as a sustainability consultant, at Nestle, and now Tesco followed. And while some may scoff at the idea that Turrell turned away from a sector in which ‘one entity dictates the terms’ only to end up at Britain’s biggest supermarket years later, there is no doubting her role as head of environment places her at the fulcrum of potential change.

With the global food industry set to overtake oil and gas to become the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the role of every supermarket – not least Britain’s biggest – will be crucial.

While the environmental problems facing the food sector are vast both in scope and scale, for Turrell, “climate change and delivering on net-zero is the big umbrella issue under which everything else falls.”

Since Turrell joined Tesco in June 2020, the supermarket has launched a quietly radical change in philosophy when it comes to influencing environmental change, initiating a policy of working with banks to launch sustainability-linked finance schemes as a means to incentive climate action. 

Name: Anna Turrell

Potted CV: Spent a decade in sustainability consultancy, joined Nestlé across different roles including global public affairs through to head of sustainability for the UK & Ireland business. Joined Tesco in June 2020.

Biggest challenge facing the food industry: The compounding of issues – cost of living crisis, supply chain shocks, climate change, public health, inflation. We need a radical rethink of our food system

Death row meal: Norfolk asparagus in a little butter. They’re the best!

Currently reading: The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir and Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them by Dan Saladino.

The first scheme came in June 2021 with new preferential lending rates for Tesco’s supplier if they could evidence certain net-zero commitments. The system is tiered, meaning a supplier can access the best rates if it has enacted science-based targets and a roadmap to reach net-zero, slightly lower rates if they’re tracking and sharing their emissions data, and so on.

“We carved it out so it really focuses on SMEs because that is our biggest tail in terms of the supply chain,” says Turrell. “And also where we know we need to incentivize and engage the most.”

The scheme initially saw a slow uptake, Turrell says interest is mounting with 29 businesses now signed up across both branded and own-brand products. “What we found was, there’s quite still quite a lack of understanding, amongst suppliers around just how to go about starting their climate journey,” she explains. “I think for those of us that are in the sustainability space or talking about it, we just assume that everyone should know what net-zero means and what science-based target is. Actually turns out, most of the world still don’t.”

The scheme was not without criticism. Simon Laffin, former Safeway finance director, asked at the time whether Tesco was “going green by being mean”, suggesting supply chain finance schemes were used “when a company takes so long to pay its suppliers that they have to borrow money to finance themselves”. He likened the agreement to “throwing someone overboard and claiming the moral high ground by making them sign up to ethical causes before you pull them back in”.

It’s a charge Turrell rejects. “It’s optional so it’s definitely more of a carrot. It’s available to suppliers if they want it and it’s been purposefully structured to be an incentive.”

The scheme also taps into other existential questions facing retailers right now. When it launched last year, supplier groups raised concerns that pursuing environmental change would add further costs to businesses already stretched in the wake of the pandemic. Now, with inflation at a 30-year high, that burden will feel even greater.

But Turrell refuses to let Tesco slow down. “We don’t have time to waste,” she urges. “We have to continue on this road on this journey because it’s only going to get harder. And it’s only going to get harder, and it’s only going to cost us more in the longer term if we don’t take the action we need to take now.

“People are dying. The climate crisis is not going away. It’s only going to get worse.”

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Going global

Tesco is now taking its sustainable-finance schemes global. In August, along with Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, it announced a new scheme to incentivise soy farmers by providing low-cost finance in return for stemming legal deforestation on their land.

The $11m put up by the three supermarkets will go towards providing annual loans for farmers to buy seeds, fertilisers, and other agricultural inputs at a rate around 25% lower than their current interest rate.

“As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that UK retailers have basically leapfrogged right the way back up to the other end of the food value chain,” Turrell says, explaining its typically, it’s big FMCG companies who deal much more directly with their commodity supply chains.

“For retail, we’re so far at the other end of the spectrum, that for one, we have a much more diverse portfolio of ingredients and commodities, whereas the big FMCG are much more concentrated.

While Turrell recognises “it’s not money that is going to solve the problem,” she hopes that the pilot will determine whether such a model is possible. “And if we can prove that that model works, and we can scale it, then you can change things. Then you can have impact.

Because what we’re not doing is trying to tell Brazil what to do, or farmers what to do. We are basically taking the tools within the current market framework and trying to just slightly tweak that system to be able to deliver a win-win, which is to keep forest standing, and keep farmers getting a profit and having livelihoods.”

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Under pressure

Tesco’s work in Brazil has not appeased campaigners such as Greenpeace, however, who accuse the supermarket of “fanning the flames of the forest fires raging across Brazil, buying meat from companies owned by Amazon rainforest destroyer,” urging it to cut all ties with subsidiaries of Brazilian-meat giant JBS including Moy Park and Pilgrim’s Pride.

For Turrell though, the calls are misdirected. “It’s frustrating because I understand it, but the reality is much more complex,” she says. “The global economy is such that it continues to move so it may be JBS subsidiaries in the UK today, it may be something else tomorrow. There’s always going to be something that you need to deal with.”

Instead, Turrell suggests a more joined-up approach is needed, lobbying for change in producing countries while pressuring demand-side governments, such as the UK, to implement strong, coherent, trade and regulatory frameworks that enable all business to be held to account for delivering on higher environmental law, whatever it is standard.

While that is starting to emerge in the form of due-diligence legislation in the EU and the UK, for Turrell, there is a still a long way to go.

“Because until we get that…big picture, we’re never going to solve them as industry. And that I think is challenging.”