News analysis: Tesco's transparency on food waste is a CSR wake-up call for the City

John Owens chews over Tesco's decision to tackle food waste head on by highlighting how much it throws away.

As far as revelations go, it was not the most flattering - 28,500 tonnes of food is a lot of waste in six months, even if you are the UK's biggest supermarket.

But this was not an embarrassing statistic dug up by campaigners attempting to push Tesco into action. In a proactive move, the firm took corporate responsibility beyond self-congratulation and aired its dirty laundry in public.

The disclosure represented a bold step for the high street giant, according to SAB Miller's corporate affairs director Catherine May

May, who praised the move, says: "The move is an extraordinary one for a business like Tesco".

"Big institutions tend to be far more risk averse and conservative in style. This was a risky strategy in that it was something very easy for critics of the business to use."

The retailer released the figures as part of a measure to reduce wastage, in an attempt to get others to follow suit. But it is not as though Tesco is the only brand with a strong social message.

In the supermarket sector alone, Marks & Spencer forged a corporate social responsibility path with the launch of Plan A in 2007, while Sainsbury's 20X20 plan launched two years ago with the aim of achieving 20 social and environmental targets by 2020.

Beyond that, examples include Ikea pledging to create more forests than it cuts down for furniture and Coca-Cola Enterprises being awarded the Carbon Trust Water Standard for reducing water use. However, the move is an intriguing development in how companies deal with the growing expectation that they must be socially responsible.

Fishburn Hedges director for sustainability Phil Drew points to the credit crunch as a key turning point in how brands have responded to the question of their social value. Bragging about shareholder return is more likely to recall the causes of the economic crash in the minds of the public, he asserts, meaning that brand engagement must focus increasingly on how a company is helping wider society.

"Proactively revealing your contribution to a social problem - in this case food waste - sounds counter-intuitive, but actually marks a shift in how companies regard corporate responsibility," Drew says. "It's a change in mindset, from simply communicating on sustainability issues to actively campaigning on them."

In this light, the use of potentially damning statistics shows that Tesco has a huge stake in the issue on which it is campaigning. As Tesco's group corporate affairs director Rebecca Shelley puts it: "Nobody buys greenwash any more. This is the way that CSR is going, and in the age of Twitter people know if you're not being authentic."

The public seems sold on the idea of corporate's social purpose, but the City is taking longer to buy into the concept.

StockWell managing partner Philip Gawith notes: "Society's voice is being heard more loudly, but I am cautious about the extent to which the City is changing how it takes these issues into account. These people don't think along those lines as it just doesn't fit into their model."

But the money men do not call all the shots. As Gawith adds, "the difference is in the boardroom". And there is evidence that the boardrooms are taking note when it comes to backing up the social rhetoric with hard numbers, even if they are not entirely positive.

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