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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Enabling consumers to make sustainable choices

Retail Forum for Sustainability 2011 Annual Event

Brussels, 10 November 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to take part in this second Annual Event of the Retail Forum and to have once again the opportunity to welcome you all to Brussels.

This Forum has proven to be a valuable venue for cooperation and exchanges between businesses and policy-makers… And these exchanges become even more important in today's changing and challenging world.

Lets admit it, the challenges we face today are many and are bringing a lot of hardships. But they can also provide unique opportunities for policy reforms needed for a sustainable exit from debts and deficits, not only financial, but also economic and environmental.

The fact is that our entire economic system was built in an era of abundant and cheap resources. But what worked well in the past, is already showing signs of strain in the present with many of the ecosystems underpinning our natural resources already degraded and we can be absolutely sure that it will not work in the future… with 200,000 people joining our planet every day; with our planet's population reaching 7 billion a few days ago and expected to rise to more than 9 billion by the middle of this century; with 2 billion middle-income earners in 'developing countries' expected to triple their consumption by 2020, we can be sure that the stress on our resources will continue to increase.

The decreases in resource costs built up over the 20th Century have been completely wiped out in the first 10 years of this Century and we don't need expert analysts to tell us that this will continue. Get ready for higher prices for energy, timber, water and many of the raw materials going into the products that you sell. This is the megatrend.

Ladies and gentlemen,

New conditions impose new requirements! This means change. But we must not be afraid of change. On the contrary, we must build on our strengths and transform the challenges that change presents into opportunities, exactly as we have done in the past.

Just like we moved from an industrial age built on gears and sweat, to an information age demanding skills, learning and flexibility, now we need to transform our economies in a way to help restore prosperity within the boundaries of our planet.

This is why the European Commission is calling for a large-scale switch to a resource-efficient economy.

We have called for the decoupling of our growth from resource use and its impacts. This means saving resources wherever possible, dematerialising our consumption patterns, pricing resources at their true costs, and making recycling and reuse the norm.

The challenge is a big one, especially in Europe, where we are locked into a resource intensive growth path developed over two-hundred years. But the earlier we take up this challenge, the more we make it into an opportunity. The sooner we get the cost benefits of resource efficiency, the more we get the competitiveness dividend.

Of course this requires investment, and – like any transformation – some pain. But by adopting the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe in September the Commission has given a clear message of the direction we are going, and provided the private sector with the increased certainty and predictability to make those investments.

So the indicators, targets and actions in the roadmap are in themselves useful, but of course they are not enough.

To transform it into reality we need to work together and we need the support and commitment of everybody. When it comes to the environment every choice counts at every step along the chain – the design of the products we make, the choice of the raw materials we use, the products we put on our shelves, the things we buy, the way we use them and the things we throw away…

As retailers, you are very much at the point where supply meets demand, and that makes you essential to the whole chain. In the roadmap we have tried to look at how to change behaviour on the demand side as well as the demand side, and part of that is something that you can teach us a lot about – influencing consumer behaviour.

However, consumers are not making their choices "in an isolated bubble". They are influenced by many factors, including retailers' strategies. Retail businesses have a key role to play – with the goods you put on the shelves, with the information you provide to customers, and with other actions such as your decision to offer free plastic carrier bags or not.

When you look at the costs for marine wildlife you can truly say that "there is no such thing as a free plastic bag". And the difference that retailers can make is truly great. Look for example at one company, Mercadona, that managed to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags in 150 of its stores by 70 %.

Joint action at EU level is very important. In the future, I can imagine the Retail Forum taking a sectoral commitment, preferably with partners along the supply chain, on similar environmental problems.

When I go shopping, I am increasingly confronted with a multitude of labels. If you consider yourself to be a well informed and environmentally conscious customer, this proliferation makes your choice extremely difficult, especially for fast moving consumer goods, where most customers makes their decision in a couple of seconds. If you are not so environmentally conscious the proliferation is just annoying, confusing and lacking credibility.

If we are to tackle the growing consumer cynicism of labels, we must make sure they are based on solid life cycle assessments and are third party verified. Criteria behind private labels need to converge.

The business case for resource efficiency is perhaps most easily understood when we talk about energy. Improving the energy efficiency of stores makes perfect business sense. The refrigeration of fresh and frozen products accounts for up to 50 % of the energy consumption of a food store and any efficiency measure will result in direct savings in energy bills. It is crazy to think that you are paying to cool down your store at the same time as you pay to heat it. Royal Ahold and Delhaize have made major savings by equipping their stores with covered freezers and optimized freezer-cabinets, or by introducing energy-efficient LED lighting.

Close cooperation between retailers and suppliers is also key to ensuring that products on retailers' shelves are as environmentally friendly as possible. I find, for example, the initiative of the Metro Group quite promising. They developed a supplier training programme in developing and emerging countries to make sure that their sustainability requirements are fulfilled by actors all along the supply chain.

I give some specific examples, but I know that many retailers have improved their environmental performance in recent years, particularly Retail Forum members.

I believe it’s the role of the Retail Forum to lead by example and to stimulate retailers to make a significant contribution to the resource efficiency agenda. Your commitments taken in the Retail Forum are ambitious, and go well beyond the legislative requirements. But I think that you understand that they are also in your commercial interest. And in future, I am convinced you will continue on this road and will come up with ambitious objectives at individual and sectoral level. That's why I will continue to fully support you.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My main message for you today is that even though natural resources have been used unsustainably for decades, and even though we already have to face consequences of the past now – I am strongly convinced that it's not too late to open our eyes and transform the economy through joint action.

I am convinced that a large-scale switch to a resource-efficient economy cannot happen with only a top-down approach and legislation. We all need to work together on achieving our shared goal of a resource-efficient economy. Policy-makers, businesses, producers, and NGOs might have different ways of improving sustainability, and different tools in their hands – just like individual members of an orchestra who play different tunes on different instruments – but in the end it is the final result that matters. I hope for a perfect symphony for a sustainable economy!

In the end, policy-makers and businesses are fighting on the same side to ensure a sustainable future. The Retail Forum has proven to be an effective tool in this new way of policy-making. With more ambition, more commitment and more effective implementation of the Retail Forum objectives, I am convinced that we will be even more successful in our fight for green consumption and ultimately creating a prosperous and resource-efficient future.

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