Switch to Sustainability

s_1Switch Asia – is a program funded by the European Union (EU) – which promotes Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) across Asia. It works with both producers and consumers on the ground as well as at the policy-making level to formulate and implement SCP-related policies.

In India, the Retailers Association of India has partnered with the EU to further this cause.

During RAI’s Supply Chain Summit in Mumbai, on December 5 2013, STOrai spoke to Dr. Arno Schaefer, Minister Counselor, Head of Cooperation, EU Delegation to India about the program. We discussed sustainability in retail and how Switch Asia applies to India. Excerpts from the conversation:

RAI: What was the intent behind developing the Switch Asia Project?
Dr. A.S: The European Union has undertaken a number of initiatives in order to tackle the issue of climate change, general environmental protection and sustainable development. We at European Union look at Sustainability from an economic, social and environmental point of view. It is under this theme of Sustainability that we developed the Switch Asia Project.

The Switch Asia Project is a demand driven program; it is not negotiated with the government or internally. We have fixed the objectives of the program as Sustainable Consumption & Production. We then called for proposals which are in line with these objectives, considered the one which fits best and implement it.

s_1The retail sector including the supply chain, i.e. from production to consumption has a crucial role to play. It is important from the point of view of economic value add, and from the employment point of view. There are issues related to transport, emission, energy use & efficiency which are linked to Sustainable Production & Consumption. These issues need to be tackled in context of a country’s retail environment.

Since the Indian retail environment is extremely heterogeneous with millions of participants it is an enormous challenge to improve the area, to implement technologies, create awareness, to educate and to carry out advocacy. Thus when we have the befitting application for this project, we feel it will prove to be a great initiative for umbrella organizations, for partners to address retail sector, to promote the idea of sustainability in the sector.

Thus Switch Asia Project for us is an entry point to promote these ideas generally.

RAI:  What are your expectations and final outcome from the Switch Asia Project?
Dr. A.S: The final outcome and expectation from the project you will find lies in the general objectives of European Union regarding environmental protection, sustainable production, and climate change. We intend to achieve this through the project by increasing awareness amongst the millions of stakeholders of the retail sector- first about the problems and then the possible solutions, which partly is about energy efficiency technology, and partly about better management.

s_2The focus is to get people to realize that one can reduce use of energy, reduce waste and create cost benefits. And at the same time you are also doing something good for environment, for us and for the next generations.

And while attempting to achieve these expectations in case we come across gaps in the system then with the support of organizations like RAI, we would carry out advocacy initiatives. Actions can be taken up with policy makers & legislators to tackle gaps that exist in the legislations & regulatory environment.

RAI: What are some of the immediate issues that come to mind with reference to India, which can be impacted through the project?
Dr. A.S: At the European Union we have programs which are built to improve the livelihood of people. We have large programs developed in the education space, some for disadvantaged areas and regions, where we run health programs.

In an Indian context, when we looked a little deeper we noticed serious issues plaguing the food & beverage areas. I have noticed that in disadvantaged areas there are major issues like malnutrition in children; hospitals have special wards to treat them. While government measures like school feeding programs, and also the new Food Security Bill are present, there is a lot the retail industry can also do in this space.

We want to help the retail industry to build an efficient system, which is capable of providing products that are essential for the health of growing children at affordable prices. And these foods should not just be staples like rice, but also other produce like vegetables. It this system is built then no longer are the children dependent on state intervention, food security bills or school feeding program. They will have a more accessible option i.e. the market itself.

s_3The ideal is, if I, as a consumer in India, can shop for the basic necessities in outlets throughout the country at affordable prices. This will solve many problems without requiring any intervention of government.

That’s our vision or goal for this program – from an Indian perspective.

RAI: Why does the Switch-ASIA project focus on SMEs?
Dr. A.S: The reason behind our focus on SMEs is that they play an important role in the Indian retail sector. While we are asking retailers to adopt the SCP concept it is also  essential that the backend that is the companies from where the products come from adopt this idea. It is essential that what sells at the store is a result of sustainable production.

Right now, consumer awareness on sustainability of product sold by retailers is low.  It is a matter of time before this awareness takes root and plays its part.  Consumers will begin to demand sustainable products. And once this demand flows in – the retail system should know how to tackle it.   For them to know, their own vendors and suppliers who are SME’s, need to understand the inter-dependency.

So we are targeting SME’s to reduce the lack of awareness regarding sustainability in that sector.

RAI: Do you see sustainable supply chains as becoming a ‘business-as-usual’ feature?
Dr. A.S: Sustainable supply chain soon will be a business-as-usual practice. This partly will be due to regulation because then it becomes an obligation. But, partly the change will happen due to public pressure and the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility. If companies are bringing products in the market which are unsafe, unhealthy or are produced in an unhealthy environment then bad reputation is sure to follow. Thus the pressure from both regulations and consumer side will ensure that sustainable production patterns become part of business-as-usual.

RAI: Your experience at Supply Chain Summit 2013 & your message to the Retail Industry
Dr. A.S: Personally I must say I was very excited and surprised about the context, the large range of discussions that transpired at Supply Chain Summit 2013. I was impressed by the knowledge of the people regarding the varied facets of sustainability and I hope these discussions materialized into effective actions.

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Retailers Association of India (RAI) is the unified voice of Indian retailers. RAI is a not for profit organization (registered under section 25 of Companies Act, 1956), works with all the stakeholders for creating the right environment for the growth of the modern retail industry in India. RAI is the body that encourages, develops, facilitates and supports retailers to become modern and adopt best practices that will delight customers. RAI has a three charter aim of Retail Development, Facilitation and Propagation.