Woolworths seek wins for environment, customers and business.
Sustainability and social good can sometimes be presented as a win/lose situation – as though something that’s good for the environment and people isn’t good for business. That’s a perception Woolworths New Zealand is keen to prove wrong as it reaches the halfway point of a far-reaching sustainability plan launched in 2020.
“We want the triple win,” says head of sustainability Catherine Langabeer. “Good for customers, good for the environment, and good for business.”
The supermarket – currently changing from Countdown to Woolworths – has achieved good progress since it embarked on the plan, which has seen a shift in how it does business and a renewed focus on the health of its products, the planet, and people.
Langabeer says Woolworths is aiming to live its purpose of making Kiwi lives a little better be every day: “Change is happening in front of customers, in the back of our stores, in the supply chain, on our roofs. It’s exciting. We have 193 stores around New Zealand and, with the size of our company, there is huge scale and potential for impact.”
Only a few of these changes will so far have been visible to the three million New Zealanders who visit one of those stores every week. Some have been obvious, like the government-mandated removal of plastic produce bags, saving up to 50 million bags used in stores annually. There’s also the Odd Bunch fruit and vegetable range, which has rescued 41.7 tonnes of food waste since 2020, an example of Woolworth’s commitment to reduce food waste and hunger.
Others are more subtle, such as its own brand milk now using recycled rHDPE bottles, saving 114 tonnes of virgin plastic.
Behind the scenes, Woolworths has also been focusing on team wellbeing. More than a third of the team are now signed up to the Sonder employee holistic care programme, and closing the gender pay gap and ensuring Māori and Pasifika representation in leadership has also been a big focus.
Langabeer says the latter is not yet where it needs to be, having dropped to 8 per cent from 10 per cent last year – the goal is 20 per cent. “We have identified the challenges and are working to close the gap,” she says.
However, its reduction in the gender pay gap has been a big win. In 2023 the gap was 1.41 per cent compared to New Zealand’s national gap of 9.2 per cent. That means for every $1 men earn, women earn 99c at Woolworths. This is a reduction from a 3.6 per cent gap the previous year, and Langabeer says it shows the significant change a large organisation can make.
“The nature of our company means we have a lot of entry-level team members so, when we make an investment to support them through wage increases, as we have committed to, this has a really powerful ripple effect overall.”
Still more is happening at the very base of the food supply chain, both in the soil and in the hands of the people who grow what we eat. Woolworths was recently ranked first globally in the KnowTheChain Food and Beverage Benchmark – which assesses how companies identify, address, and fix modern slavery risks in their supply chains.
“It’s very confronting to realise that slavery and worker exploitation still happens globally - let alone in New Zealand. To make a meaningful impact, we focus on high risk areas. For example, within New Zealand we have been working closely with our horticulture suppliers and our cleaning contractors - and I am just incredibly proud of the work that Woolworths does in this area,” Langabeer says.
Improving soil health is another crucial factor in sustainability and, though Woolworths has nearly halved its own emissions since 2015, it also wants to reduce emissions in its supply chain. With co-funding from the Ministry of Primary Industries, the company is investigating using compost, cover crops and perennial plantings to restore ecosystems with its grower partner LeaderBrand in its Regenerative Agriculture project.
Langabeer says it’s hoped his voluntary, mutual approach can reduce emissions for everyone’s benefit, beyond the environmental focus of Woolworths’ customers in New Zealand and the global market.
“If you’re a New Zealand food grower exporting to global markets, you’ll be getting increasingly asked about this from all sorts of outlets,” she says. “We hope that, by stepping into this ourselves, we’re helping equip producers for that.”
Although there will always be challenges ahead, she says focusing on the sustainability of our food sector is a must: “We know we’re facing challenges now around cost of living, but we’re also looking to secure the long-term resilience of our food sector and making sure we’re looking after our ecosystem and keeping soil healthy.
“That’s what will protect our food supply and our customers of the future. Our job is to take account of what’s happening now – but it’s critical that we to look beyond the horizon as well.”
For more information: Countdown.co.nz