Sustainability Matters for the horticulture industry

The HTA Sustainability Matters event took place at Horticulture House, Chilton, on 30 April giving attendees a deeper insight into sustainability issues across the industry and wider business arena.

Adam Taylor, HTA President and Taylors Bulbs, opened the day looking at the definition of sustainability, and how it is about so much more than just plastics. With TV programmes gaining more public momentum, there has been no time more important than now to make it top of your priority list. It isn’t about pointing the finger and giving blame, it is about working together and finding strategies that work across the industry.

George Bullivant, Director of Gardenforum who was chairing the day, then followed discussing how important the matter of sustainability is for the industry. It is a subject that has an emotional connection with so many people, and if as an industry we get it wrong, it will have a detrimental effect across the whole industry.

The statistics around sustainability were then looked at by David Denny and Laura Jeffery, Marketing and Insights Manager and Market Research Executive, HTA, who talked about how consumers and the government both believe that it is down to businesses to respond to the drive for sustainability. The government are involved in a range of treaty obligations, including a target to keep global warning under 2 degrees by 2050.  They also highlighted how there are 222.9 million tonnes of total waste in the UK per year - that is 277 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge. 1 fifth of that waste is industrial and commercial waste. 24.4% of the total waste goes to landfill, and in 2017 45.7% was recycled. The big culprits are 14 billion plastic drinks bottles and currently 30% of food waste is not recycled. There is 7 million tonnes of household food waste a year, of which 5 million is categorised as edibles which equates to the same as 250 million meals a year. Pret a Manger have a food donation called ‘The Pret Charity Run’ where they take their food waste and donate unsold food to hostels and charities supporting the homeless.

Programmes like Blue Planet II brought sustainability straight to the heart of millions, and this has had a lasting effect. The main issues driving consumer concern are the high media profile it has been given, the concern for health and wellbeing, and performative perfection. The performative perfection element draws from the idealistic perception that people want to give on social media, and this has driven a desire to show a sustainable lifestyle and #ZeroWaste on social media. 20% of people want to cut down on how much water they use, and 20% of people look for ‘eco-friendly’ on packaging. Three quarters of Gardeners’ World readers think that plastics in gardens are a problem.

Leah Riley Brown, Sustainability Policy Adviser, British Retail Consortium, then raised that she believes building trust is key to the issue of sustainability with the public, and the best way to achieve that is through transparency. If you are not talking to consumers about the things that you are doing and the steps that you have taken, even if it is only half way there, there is the chance that consumers will assume that you are doing harm. There are reports coming out that we have 12 years to make changes to save the planet before it becomes too late, and whilst this may seem like long time, in reality and especially in business terms that is no time at all. It should be the default that products that are put to market are sustainable, and if they are not that they should be labelled as such. Consumers are starting to see through a label stuck on a product saying it is green or sustainable, so there needs to be more meaning and explanation behind this. Leah also highlighted that she believes collaboration is key when it comes to sustainability in business.

Leah discussed proposed changes including extended producer responsibility for packaging so that ‘producers’ pay the full cost of disposal for packaging they place on the market. There are also talks to introduce a deposit return scheme for single use containers, and there is an increasing need for consistency in collection for local authorities: something that the HTA have been lobbying for alongside the recyclability of taupe pots.

When looking at what is on the horizon, it appears that veganism in fashion is on the increase. This is not just about consumers looking for non-animal-based materials, but also as they feel it is less impactful to the environment. This is shown in the recent news that Volkswagen are launching their next electric car with vegan apple leather interior. It is becoming more popular to look at things that were previously thought of as waste and repurpose them, for example mushroom leather and pineapple leather.

Leah finished by saying that your business case for sustainability needs to be about establishing trust with your consumer by using transparent goals or metrics. Collaborate with your sector and others to strengthen your own sustainability efforts. Keep up to date with current sustainability issues, but also keep one eye on the horizon for new opportunities. A good starting point for this is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals - https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org or the British Retail Consortium’s ‘Better Retail, Better World’ initiative  - https://brc.org.uk/making-a-difference/priorities/better-retail-better-world

Collins Word of the Year 2018 was ‘single-use’, which Stuart Foster, CEO of RECOUP, put down to the media snowstorm that Blue Planet II created. He then gave an insight into how RECOUP came to be 30 years ago with the aim of leading and informing the continued development of plastics recycling and resource management. Whilst RECOUP want to be the UK’s plastic value chain coordinators, they also want to ensure they are the voice of reason for the sector. Stuart believes that a European strategy for plastics in a circular economy includes elements of raising the cost of landfilling and incineration, promote plastic and prevention, and developing a global response to the increase in marine litter. Stuart also reminded us to think that whilst in the UK we may discuss the colour of recycling bins, so many countries in the world don’t have access to any such facilities.

No matter what happens with Brexit, the government says it will follow the EU advice on plastics/sustainability as a minimum. Stuart discussed how eco-design of packaging guidance was first developed over 20 years ago and is continually reviewed. RECOUP look at product and pack reviews, support for assessment tools, transparency and advice and are genuinely independent.

When looking at eco-design considerations, you should ensure you look at all elements of recyclability. You have to remember that elements such as sealing layers, foil laminates, plastic laminates, labels, polymers, colour, size, adhesive, biodegradables, compostables, all may affect whether a product can be recycled.

The demand for the more ‘recyclable’ polymers are on the up with a 6% increase in use of PP and 4% increase in use of PE. Stuart stated there is a clear need to develop and align a plan and actions regarding black plastic packaging recycling. The intention is to bring together individual conversations and discussions, plans and thinking, to develop and deliver a co-ordinated approach.

Steve Harper, Head of Commercial & Marketing from Bord Na Mona, spoke about the work going on to develop a Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media. Running through the drivers for Government set peat reduction targets he demonstrated how the industry has responded by developing the scheme (to be launched later this year) which assesses the environmental impact of all constituent ingredients of growing media – not just peat.

A panel session on plastics saw the topic being discussed by HTA Policy Executive Sally Cullimore, Nick Mathias from Floramedia, Shaun Herdsman from Modiform, David Chilvers from The Bransford Webbs Plant Company and Matthew Appleby from Horticulture Week.

The focus of the discussion was about how the message should be about informing consumers that non-black plastic pots can be recycled – recognising that other colours other than taupe can also be recycled. It was felt that this was a clearer consumer message.

Recycling return and re-use schemes were also felt to be important. Rather than just putting a skip at the front of your store an opportunity could be made of placing an ‘attractive bin’ to demonstrate that you do want the product back. Recognising that pots of all sizes are likely to be returned it was suggested that garden centres could use the returned pots and create a ‘wonky pots’ initiative (akin to the supermarkets ‘wonky veg’ initiative) – again helping to raise awareness and create a story around reuse.

Discussion was also had around alternatives to plastics. The current products available degrade too quickly to make them not commercially viable – although on a small scale some grower-retailers are using cardboard pots at the till. It was recognised that this would not work for larger retailers where product is not grown on site. However, these products are then single use and the energy used to make them may not make them sustainable. A universal product that could be used in a close loop system was felt to be a possible solution for the industry.

Trewin Restorick, CEO of the Hubbub Foundation spoke about how the charity uses playful, entertaining ways to get environmental messages across. Social media is certainly creating a chat storm around environmental issues but there is still a large gap between what people say and what they do. Initiatives run by Hubbub seek to reduce this gap and change behaviour. Trewin’s examples included innovative methods of encouraging people to stop littering cigarette butts, coffee cup switch projects, making products from plastic bottles and food waste initiatives including recipe ideas for pumpkins at Halloween and community fridges. Trewin encouraged everyone to tell a story about their actions as it will be businesses that respond positively to environmental challenges that will succeed.

Mike Burks, Managing Director from The Gardens Group spoke about how they take a positive approach to environmental communication with their customers. He felt that for some customers the issues are too large and complex and there is a danger of turning them off gardening completely by telling them what they can’t do. For the last 10 years they have worked with Dorset Wildlife Trust on a wildlife gardening competition helping them to get positive messages out about ‘doing the right thing’. They are also involved in Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Get Dorset Buzzing Campaign encouraging residents to do something extra for pollinators. Both great examples of positive action that people can take. Mike feels that if as a business you feel these are the right things to do morally then they usually are the right things to do commercially as well.

Colin Jones, General Manager from Carr Farm Garden Centre spoke about the various actions that they have taken as a business to reduce their environmental footprint whilst making substantial cost savings at the same time. From installing biomass heaters and capturing/reusing water for the plant area to recycling cardboard and plastic and installing LED lighting. Businesses need to be willing to invest as most of the work can be costly in the first instance before savings come later. Colin felt that Government could do more to incentivise businesses to invest in sustainability and clearer signposting of available incentives would also help. Colin was also keen to explore the possibility to collaborate with other garden centres to make recycled waste collection less of a cost.

Natalie Porter, Sales and Marketing Manager, from Porters Fuchsias/Happy Plants spoke about the work they have done over the past year to ensure that the pots, trays, packs and labels they use as a business are 97% recyclable. Happy Plants use Poppleman Blue pots which are kerbside recyclable, Eco-expert trays from Modiform made from sustainably sourced recycled card pulp and ensure that labels are made from the same materials as the respective pots or trays.

Importantly, Natalie made the point that the recyclable alternatives that they are currently using are not the end solution and work continues on developing new solutions and this is just part of the journey. With an estimated 500 million plastic plant pots in circulation every year small changes that individual businesses make can make a big difference.

In conclusion Natalie spoke about how the focus now needs to be on ensuring that all these materials are recycled through local authorities. The materials are re-processable through existing infrastructure and there is demand there for them as they have an increasing value to reprocessors. Working in parallel with the local authorities and consumers we can help make this change.

In summing up HTA President- Elect Boyd Douglas-Davies from Hillview Group said,

“What an insightful and stimulating day with plenty of food for thought. The event demonstrated how small actions can make big differences and we need to take our customers with us on the journey. As an industry we are making great progress with regard to recyclable pots and let’s not forget that we are producing a great product in the shape of plants or ‘clean air machines’. We need to shout about this helping to ensure that the buyers of the future continue to come to us for great products with a positive impact on the environment.”

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