Neil Everitt Studio Portraits

Sainsbury’s has come in for a lot of criticism over its decision to abandon to the bulldozer its one-time eco-flagship supermarket in Greenwich. Neil Everitt, editor of the Cooling Post, asks who knows what “sustainable” really is and will it always be secondary to sales in retailing?

The air conditioning and refrigeration industry is ruled by the laws of physics. The laws of thermodynamics, Boyles law, etc, are exact sciences and you ignore them at your peril. Work-wise, at least, they underpin everything we do in refrigeration and air conditioning.

Increasingly, however, the industry is being driven by environmental demands. Sustainability, renewables and environmentally friendly are becoming the watchwords in a world dominated by green issues. Yet those words are, in many ways, indefinable. They owe as much to coleslaw as they do to any other law

They are not couched in the exactitudes that we normally rely upon in the world of refrigeration and air conditioning. So it should be no surprise that Sainsbury’s is being pilloried in some quarters for not operating within some peoples’ idea of sustainability when we hear that the retailer’s original eco flagship store in Greenwich faces demolition within just 14 years of its opening.

It would not be so bad, perhaps, if Sainsbury’s, along with so many other leading retailers, did not feel the need to trumpet their renewable and sustainable virtues at every opportunity.

Definition

So what does sustainable actually mean? The definitions are so woolly that even a sheep wouldn’t recognise it.

The more concise definitions of sustainable are that it is the act of conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. A more verbose definition I was given is that it means leaving the world a little better than you found it, taking no more than you need, trying not to harm life or the environment and making amends if you do.

Sustainability, then, is a target, a desire but can it ever be an achievable goal? I think not.

In its defence Sainsbury’s maintains that sustainable technologies have moved on since the current store was first built and the new store will use the very latest technologies and consume significantly less energy.

But where are the laws, where are the equations, that determine when the optimum time is, environmentally speaking, to upgrade to the latest technology? After all, the likelihood is that technological advances in refrigeration will mean that a system installed next year or in five years’ time will be more efficient than one installed today. We wouldn’t replace any refrigeration system that regularly due to the cost but would it be environmentally beneficial to do so? It seems doubtful but nobody actually seems to know.

We are only outraged by Sainsbury’s decision because it “seems” too soon to demolish a store which was supposedly built with all the environmental bells and whistles.

Sales above all else

The supermarkets are under enormous pressure from green groups to reduce their carbon footprint and, being high profile consumer-aware businesses, they are acutely aware of their public image but what sort of role can “sustainability” have in today’s high pressure retail world?

Sales are all important and if that means bulldozing a store to build a bigger one retailers will do so. That is why so many retailers, concerned not to put any barriers in the path of potential customers, heat or cool the high street (depending on what time of year we are talking about) by leaving their doors open. Similarly, that is why so many supermarkets are reluctant to add energy-saving doors to their refrigerated cases.

When it comes to potential sales, sustainability and the environment are always going to take a back seat.