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Big Interview: Alice Ellison

Alice Ellison has a pivotal role in advising the retail sector about waste policy. She takes it seriously, answering the questions volleyed at her with precision, even leafing through pages of reports to address a specific query.

Ellison is in charge of the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) Better Retailing Climate, a series of commitments from major retailers made in 2008 to reduce their environmental impact. Alongside WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment, such voluntary agreements have helped these companies to make great strides towards resource efficiency, as well as retail giants such as Sainsbury’s leading the sector in zero waste to landfill.

Environment policy adviser Ellison explains the role of the organisation. 

“The BRC does what is says on the tin, she says. “It represents retailers, so it covers the whole range of retailers and shops: supermarkets, pharmacies, DIY, clothes shops, whether they are on the high street, online or out of town outlets.”

This year’s Better Retailing Climate progress report, which Ellison put together in March, noted that major retailers had exceeded their landfill diversion goals. In fact, the targets were calibrated downwards – the initial target was 25% by 2013, but this was revised to less than 15% –when companies were shown to be overshooting expectations. 

Was the bar set too low or did retailers do outstandingly well?

“The latter,” Ellison says. “The targets were very challenging at the time. The initial target was simply diverting waste from landfill, but the debate has moved on so far and so fast in the intervening five years. 

“Retailers are looking at moving up the waste hierarchy to waste prevention and reuse. And now there is much more interest in what happens to the waste after it is diverted from landfill – where does it go? Is it incinerated, reused or redistributed?”

“Retailers are looking at moving up the waste hierarchy to waste prevention and reuse”

There has also been a shift from looking at a retailer’s direct impact on the environment to appraising how they can influence the supply chain, especially food producers and consumers. For instance, grocers and food manufacturers have worked together to reduce food and packaging waste in the greater supply chain through the Courtauld Commitment. 

Another example is the ongoing work of the Food Sustainability Forum, a collaboration of NGOs, grocers, food and drink manufacturers and academics looking at mapping the environmental impact of grocery products from cradle to grave.

Ellison says a new set of Better Retailing Climate commitments, to be published early next year, will also focus on the supply chain because this is where most of the environmental impact lies.

“The supply chain… is where most of the environmental impact lies”

With retailers doing well in meeting voluntary targets and their own internal zero waste initiatives, it begs the question: do retailers need more policy or regulation in place to meet their ambitions around waste or are they pushing forwards faster on their own?

Ellison thinks it is a mixture. She says energy policy is an example where the BRC has called for a holistic and coherent approach to policy from the Government. But, she says: “I think areas such as food waste reduction are where retailers and food manufacturers have demonstrated what can be done through a voluntary agreement. Regulation and legislation do not necessarily aid that process.”

Ellison is particularly interested in the challenge of food waste. She is on a working group at the BRC looking at developing guidelines around edible food and will be on a panel discussing this issue at this year’s RWM with CIWM exhibition.

Should there be mandatory food waste targets in the UK?

“That is something I haven’t directly discussed with our members,” she says, explaining that the BRC consults with its retail members via quarterly meetings or email feedback.

Ellison’s previous role was also with a membership organisation, London Councils, which represents the 33 London boroughs. Her post there was transport and environment adviser, covering elements such as waste and litter.

“The work was around household collection and responding to changing circumstances, looking at how local authorities could achieve efficiencies and savings given the Government cutbacks,” she says. “The main similarity to my current position is waste, which I have taken through to the retail perspective.”

But now Ellison has a much broader scope. Her work means she looks to Europe and monitors relevant policy coming out of Brussels. She says the BRC has responded to the WEEE recast and system changes consultations, and is working on feeding sector reactions into the waste management targets and food waste consultations.

She says her work is increasingly influenced by what happens on an international level as consumption and production become more global. A good example, she says, is the Product Sustainability Forum.

“WRAP initiated an inter-national discussion and there are going to be regular international meetings. There will be more and more countries becoming involved in that to avoid duplication, as well as sharing information.”

Closer to home, the BRC demonstrates its commitment to using retail influence to change shoppers’ behaviour with the On-Pack Recycling Label. The initiative started in 2009 and now has about 150 signatories, of which the majority are brands and 20-25 are retailers. Ellison says that one of her areas of focus during the next six months is to work with WRAP and councils to raise awareness of the label. 

She explains that if councils have information on their website that relates to the label, the joined-up approach should help consumers find the information they need more easily, making the label more effective.

Ellison says the BRC intends to conduct research into how people react to the three labels – ‘widely recycled’, ‘not currently recyclable’ and ‘check local recycling’ – when disposing of packaging.

The BRC drive is evidence of another significant economic sector taking responsibility for greater resource efficiency.

CV

Alice Ellison joined the BRC as the Environment Policy Adviser in November 2012.  Alice was previously a Policy Manager on transport and environment issues for London Councils, the representative body for London’s 33 boroughs, where she led on London Councils’ work on local environmental quality, waste, aviation and  rail policy. 

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