In the past month the leading UK multiples have been firmly in the spotlight - firstly, in the case of Tesco, Asda and Marks & Spencer (see p37), for a raft of eco-initiatives aimed at substantially cutting their packaging use and, secondly, as the continuing focus of the latest Competition Commission into their relationships with suppliers.
While one would have had to have one's head buried firmly in the sand not to have recognised the growing emphasis placed by all large companies on corporate social responsibility in recent times, the speed and proximity of the announcements by Tesco, Asda and Marks & Spencer, coming within a fortnight of each other, must have surprised even seasoned retail analysts,
As packaging's defenders regularly stress, the industry has responded vigorously to charges of overpackaging in recent years. However most would acknowledge there remains room for improvement in areas like lightweighting and reduction of both primary and secondary packaging in some areas. The three retailers' announcements should therefore be welcomed, although Packaging Today baulked at hearing Asda had dubbed one of the key personnel involved in its packaging reduction scheme an “anti-packaging” expert. One would have thought that by now retailers, as specifiers of large volumes of packaging, would better recognise its essential role and be less willing to help reinforce ill-founded consumer perceptions.
Of equal note has been the Competition Commission's publication of the initial findings of its latest study into the UK multiples' treatment of suppliers (p4). To dub the initial report and accompanying papers a whitewash as far as packaging suppliers are concerned might be too strong; it is clear that for the Commission and the Office of Fair Trading to act against converter grievances, packaging companies must produce concrete evidence, not so far generally forthcoming. However, for such evidence to be produced converters, fearful of risking their very livelihood should they go on record about a particular multiple's practices, will need more convincing that, on the supermarket issue at least, the OFT is more than just a toothless watchdog.