Sustainable Development and the UK's Major Retailers

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This article reviews the ways, and the extent to which, the UK's leading retailers are contributing to sustainable development. An outline of sustainable development, seen as part of the wider business community's commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agendas, and a brief review of the dynamic and increasingly concentrated nature of retail provision, provide a platform for an examination of the ways in which the top ten UK owned retailers are addressing sustainable development. This examination, which draws its empirical material from the company's CSR reports posted on the World Wide Web, reveals that the retailers claim not only to be addressing a number of the impacts that their businesses have on the environment, the economy and society but also to be integrating sustainability and CSR into their core business. However, as the article recognises, many of these claims are contested and while sustainability is now becoming an increasingly important issue for retailers, their policies often seem selective and primarily business driven.


The UK Government's increasing commitment to sustainable development would seem to pose a growing challenge to retailers. Quite simply, sustainable development, which aims 'to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' (HM Government, 2005, p. 6), is in conflict with the main concern of retailers which is 'actively promoting consumption' (Knight, 2004, p. 2) in a marketplace where 'shopping is increasingly becoming a leisure activity - done not out of necessity but out of luxury' (Storebrand Investments, 2003, p. 8). That said, a growing number of large UK retailers are increasingly keen to emphasise to investors and shareholders, to customers and to the general public, their commitment to sustainable development. What follows here is a a review of the ways, and the extent to which, the UK's leading retailers are contributing to sustainable development.

Sustainable development

Sustainable development has traditionally been defined as development which 'meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' (United Nations, 1987, p. 24). The concept made its initial appearance at the time of the emergence of a popular interest in environmental issues in the 1970s and since then it has attracted wider support as a broader touchstone for integrating and reconciling the seemingly competing resource demands of economic and social development and environmental conservation. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognised the continuing tensions between development and environment and produced a global programme of action. The UK Government (DTI/DEfRA, 2003) has argued that, since then, there has been a growing and more widespread acceptance of the dangers of continuing to produce and consume goods and services at levels that continue to add to environmental degradation.

The UK Government's 'new' strategy for sustainable development - 'Securing the Future' (Cm 6467) - was launched in March 2005. It seeks to address the concerns outlined above and also to reflect the renewed international pressure for sustainable development from the World Summit held in Johannesburg in 2002. The strategy focuses upon four priority areas, namely:

* sustainable consumption and production

* natural resource protection and environmental enhancement

* building sustainable communities

* climate change and energy

Five principles are held to provide the basis for sustainable development, namely:

* living within environmental limits

* ensuring a strong, healthy and just society

* achieving a sustainable economy

* using sound science responsibly

* promoting good governance. …