Interview: Asda Talks Using Future technologies to build a more sustainable business
Jade Snart is senior sustainability and compliance expert, George at ASDA. She is co-presenting the Future technologies to build a more sustainable business session at the Sustainability in Licensing Conference, which takes place on 24 and 25 June online.
- What future technologies are you, at George, planning to introduce to ensure your business will be more sustainable?
Over the last year or so, we’ve introduced 3D technology, starting with 3D fittings, which means we can remove sampling. And then we moved into 3D design. So, our latest collection adopted a full digital end to end approach with no samples at all. We got to see avatars moving down a catwalk and the fabric moved exactly as you’d expect. It was our first leap, so we were cautious, but we were really happy with the product when it arrived. We’ve now set 3D technology KPIs right across the business ensuring every department uses it. As a volume and value retailer, it’s really important that we look at ways to reduce sampling within our supply chain and head office.
Secondly, we are working with the SAC (sustainable apparel coalition) and their Higg Index platform to track the environmental impact throughout our supply chain. Our goal is for all our supplier base to engage with that platform (currently 70% are) to give us full transparency of our supply chain.
Finally, I have Blockchain technology on my radar. We have full transparency of tier 1 and 2 facilities, which are all audited, but I want to go as far as the field. That’s my ambition. At that point, we can start telling our customers about all the great work we are doing, but that won’t happen until we reach that further transparency within the supply chain to avoid being seen as greenwashing. This is about changing habits for a lifetime not just for the here and now, and that means investing in systems that allow us to achieve that.
- How will they make your business more sustainable?
These technologies will set us up to be fit for the future. We know that if we don’t change the way we source, the world we live in today will not be as we know it in years to come.
- Can you give me some examples of what you’re currently doing to be more sustainable?
We have five pillars of sustainability that we introduced at the end of 2018.
- Focus on responsibly sourced fibres. At the moment, 70% of shop floor is now sourced this way, whether it’s from managed forests, recycled polyesters or responsibly sourced cotton. By 2025 all our cotton and viscose will be responsibly sourced and by 2025 all polyester will have a minimum of 30% recycled content.
- Sustainable manufacturing to reduce chemicals, waste and water
- People and our supply chain
- Packaging and how we can reduce and remove plastic where possible, although it’s important to note that plastic isn’t the devil if you can recycle it, we actually have a great closed loop facility where we recycle our transit packaging into bags for life.
- Circularity – it’s brilliant that we’re making changes to our sourcing, etc, but how do we educate our customers to think more sustainability – to think longer life and then to reuse, recycle and upcycle?
At the end of last year, we launched our partnership with Preloved Vintage Wholesale in our sustainability store and there was such an appetite for it, we scaled up fast, rolling it out to 10 stores, initially, and to a further 40 by the end of this month. Circulatory is a big focus for us: I want to look at how we can do more in that space and how we can use clothing waste. We already have a zero tolerance so that nothing goes to landfill, but how do we keep our clothes in circulation for longer in the first place?
- Is the desire for George to be more sustainable consumer-driven? If so, which demographics are most vocal?
The consumer is always front of mind and any conversation we have is about benefiting the customer. I believe that, by giving them no alternative but to shop sustainably, we are helping them protect the planet, which has to be a good thing. We are the second biggest volume retailer in the UK, so we have a duty to make a difference. The beauty of being the scale we are is that, even the small changes we make, make a huge difference.
Demographically, we are trying to cater for everyone with our focuses on sustainability and we do tailor elements to certain people to reflect their values. So, Gen Z tend to be more interested in second-hand fashion, while other customers may be more interested in sourcing and want to buy clothing made from responsibly sourced fibres, as an example.
Having said that, we introduced our Preloved partnership to drive a younger clientele to George as the average age of the Asda shopper is younger than those making George purchases, but we soon found that every demographic was making Preloved purchases, which is absolutely phenomenal!
- What sustainability targets are you working towards?
We have three main sourcing commitments:
- Sourcing 100% of our polyester with a minimum of 30% recycled content in our own brand clothing by 2025.
- All cotton and viscose will be responsibly sourced in our own brand clothing by 2025.
- Aiming for the polybags that display our clothes in stores to have at least 30% recycled content by 2025.
- What single change has had the biggest impact for your as a business?
We have just had a transformational reorganisation to a mission-based organisation, which means we’ve moved from a hierarchical to linear structure and people are now empowered to make their own decisions. It’s a bit like running mini businesses: there are very few approval processes – we do it, learn from it, move on. It inspires innovation because we’re not afraid to test new things; if they don’t work first time, we work as a team to improve them and try again.
We are also really lucky in that we have everybody completely on board with sustainability, including the executive board – and it’s helped having that coming from the top down rather than just bottom up. They are incredibly welcoming and open-armed to suggestions that will both improve business and the wellbeing of our colleagues.
That change in mindset is really driving things forward and we now have sustainability as part of our KPI’S and objectives across the business because we can already see the benefits. And the restructuring has given us the flexibility to deliver amazing things, which can be turned round far quicker than we ever have before.
- How important is it for retail to drive the agenda forward?
The retail sector in general cannot continue to source in the way we always have done and the competitiveness between retailers must be removed to make big changes. We all have our own goals and our own commitments, but sustainability is one goal that has united us and has driven the change to remove any competitiveness and allow us to work collaboratively as an industry to create meaningful changes.
- What one change can smaller apparel retailers make right now to kick start their sustainability journey?
For me, my first advice would be to take a step back and don’t try to do everything at once. Create a roadmap – for us that was with our five pillars – and start with the things that can be actioned and realised the most easily and quickly. We chose to start with fibre sourcing and packaging piece and now we are moving to transparency, carbon emissions and circularity. Also, never feel like you’re failing by making small changes. If everyone made one to two changes, collectively we’d make a huge difference.