Asda has teamed up with brands to reduce plastic packaging. But how will it deliver on its ‘Greener at Asda Price’ strapline?

Five months behind schedule and admitting the pandemic has been a distraction, Asda this week launched a new trial store it hopes could be a turning point in the war on plastic.

The supermarket unveiled a transformation of its Middleton store, in Leeds, which will be used to try to persuade consumers to turn their backs on traditional packaging and make reusable containers and loose produce the new norm.

The move, in conjunction with more than 20 brands including Unilever, Kellogg’s and Heinz, comes almost a year to the day since Asda boss Roger Burnley accused suppliers of being more concerned with packaging’s convenience than its environmental impact.

But how does the trial store compare with what other supermarkets have done, and what could it mean for suppliers, given Burnley’s pledge that the new, more environmentally friendly products will not cost consumers more?

Originally scheduled to launch in May, the Middleton store features what Burnley claims is the most extensive set of eco-trials ever seen in one supermarket, the highlight being 15 huge banks of refill stations containing more than 30 household staples customers can dispense into their own containers.

Burnley says months of co-operation were required to get brands to agree on formats that would not risk the quality of the products, which include Kellogg’s cereals, PG Tips teabags, Quaker Oats, Lavazza and Taylors of Harrogate coffee beans, alongside Asda’s own-label rice and pasta.

Meanwhile customer enthusiasm wavered. Many came to view plastic reduction as a “first world problem” during the initial lockdown, he says. “I was getting 2,000 emails a day, none of them about plastic.

“But the environmental agenda for our customer is back with a vengeance despite the economic backdrop.”

The challenges of the pandemic for the trial are far from over, though. Avoiding free buffet-style chaos in the refill aisle would be a headache at the best of times, never mind against the backdrop of the virus.

The Asda boss admits, amid the enthusiasm from the first customers in Middleton, there have been concerns over safety. “It would have been a priority anyway but with the dispensers we’ve had to make cleanliness and safety a key part of what we’re doing. We’ve gone overboard with constant cleaning of the new fixtures and sanitisation facilities,” he says.

The focus on loose produce poses more potential problems. A Harris Interactive poll for the Grocer this month revealed almost a third of customers had safety fears over handling loose products because of coronavirus.

It will ultimately be customers who decide the trial’s fate. Asda says its success will be measured via a systematic review of customer feedback.

Other potential barriers include getting ambient suppliers more involved. Burnley admits it’s “tougher to see what we can do” with the thousands of ambient products in the store which don’t lend themselves so well to refill dispensers.

Food waste is also a potential banana skin. Burnley admits it “steps up instantly” if any increase in the proportion of loose products is not carefully managed, and some products risk huge reductions in shelf life when the plastic comes off.

But surely the biggest test will be scaleabiity. Asda plans possibly two more stores like Middleton, while beyond that the project hinges on elements being rolled out across its estate.

“The fact is that trials like this will just be seen as a gimmick unless these measures can achieve scale,” says one supermarket source. “It’s no good having a shiny trial store in Leeds if customers elsewhere don’t have the same options.”

Middleton alone will not enable Asda to hit its target, set in 2018, of a 15% cut in weight terms of plastic packaging by 2021. Or its new commitment, added this week, to remove three billion pieces of plastic from own-brand products by 2025, though its initiatives are predicted to save a million pieces of plastic per year.

Other trials

Neither is it the first supermarket to open a sustainability-themed concept store. In June last year, Waitrose launched its Unpacked concept, which saw a store in Oxford allow shoppers to refill their own containers with Ecover lines, detergent and washing-up liquid, along with wine and beer, plus own-label pasta, rice, grains, cereals and dried fruit from dispensers.

Indeed, since Iceland made its 2018 commitment to banish plastic from own label by the end of 2023, retailers have been falling over themselves to make new pledges and progress.

Just this week, Tesco announced it too had worked with Kellogg’s to launch a five-month trial enabling customers to recycle cartons of fruit juice, soups, sauces and Pringles packets at collection points at 11 stores, in place of patchy council kerbside services.

Customers who walk into Morrisons stores in Canning Town, Skipton or St Ives in Cambridgeshire will also find trials of dispensers and loose veg, after the supermarket pledged to work “aisle-by-aisle” to remove problematic plastic.

But in one way at least, Burnley has gone further than rivals, by promising Asda’s packaging-free revolution will not hit consumers’ pockets.

With Middleton comes a new strapline, ‘Greener at Asda Price’, which promises to challenge suppliers just as much as it entices cash-strapped customers seeking to cling on to their green ideals in a recession.

“We have to give them choices that are affordable,” says the Asda boss. “Customers want to play their part in sustainability but they don’t want to pay more.”

For some suppliers that rings alarm bells, especially those without the mighty budgets of some of Asda’s launch partners.

“Suppliers get nervous when retailers make commitments about price,” says one, who thinks the dynamic between retailer and supplier in reducing plastic has not always been one of seamless collaboration for the greater good. “Whether it was Tesco a couple of years back, listing a whole load of products that are going to be banned, or Asda saying these products won’t be more expensive, it’s the suppliers who are expected to pick up the tab.”

That won’t register much in the plastic PR battle, and Asda’s pilot has already achieved something of a turnaround against negative publicity.

A year ago a report by Greenpeace slammed supermarkets, including Asda, for limiting plastic production programmes to own brand ranges. It attributed nearly 90% of Asda’s overall plastic increase to branded suppliers.

Nina Schrank, lead plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK, says the Middleton store is “what people are looking for”.

“We hope this store is the first of many; we need so much more of this from the supermarket sector,” she says. “UK consumers want to ditch plastic.”

Libby Peake, head of reuse policy at The Green Alliance, says Asda’s trial is particularly welcome because the focus is not just on reducing plastic but on reusing containers rather than packaging alternatives making products re-usable.

But she adds: “This is just one store and just one trial. It’s not the big turnaround moment that will deliver everything we need. I would also have welcomed a commitment from Asda not just for the products not to cost any more but to be cheaper than those that have more plastic.”

It’s a sentiment which, from a supplier’s perspective, may raise the question: who will it cost more, then?