Can you shop sustainably at The Warehouse?
We investigate what the red shed's sustainability claims really mean.
You may have seen the ad – The Warehouse staffer walks through the store.
Her hand brushes against a shelf displaying kitchen utensils, tea towels and linen, before heading into the clothing department. A cloud formation flashes with lightning before she heads into the shelter of a forest.
“At The Warehouse, over 20 million of the products you bought last year featured improved sustainability,” says a voiceover.
The Warehouse claims it’s reduced packaging on products, bought sustainably grown cotton, wood and paper from responsibly managed forests.
It’s all part of the retailer’s “commitment to becoming one of New Zealand’s most sustainable companies while continuing to deliver great value to our customers”, Warehouse Group CEO Nick Grayston said.
But is it really possible to shop green at the red sheds? We investigate what the sustainability claims really mean.
How many sustainable products are on Warehouse shelves?
Currently 24% of The Warehouse’s own-brand products have “at least one sustainable feature”, a spokesperson said.
That means the item is made of renewable or recyclable materials, such as cotton or wood, and has reduced packaging.
The Warehouse aims to double the number of its own-brand products with a sustainability feature by 2025. But there are no goals for any other products it stocks.
Overall only 13% of products on the shelves at The Warehouse have a sustainable feature.
Sustainability Trust chief executive Georgie Ferrari said that while The Warehouse is taking small steps into sustainability, these claims alongside low prices set alarm bells ringing.
“It sells imported goods, that are essentially single-use plastics every Halloween, Easter and Christmas. These goods inevitably break or are lost and bought again the following year. There doesn’t seem to be any effort to minimise consumption.”
Ferrari said that there’s no mention of the refuse, reduce and reuse approach in The Warehouse’s sustainability claims.
Customers buying less also goes against the grain of a business that has made its name from selling large quantities of goods at low prices.
Last year, The Warehouse sales totalled $1.8 billion, with the company reaping a $187 million profit.
University of Auckland Associate Professor of marketing Michael Lee said increased economic growth is usually incompatible with sustainability.
Green marketing can sometimes be used to legitimise overconsumption, he said.
“When things get easier, cheaper, more convenient, and less guilty to use, people tend to buy and consume those things more frequently, so overall volume of production and consumption increases, so there’s very little incentive to encourage anti-consumption.”
Yet David Benattar, Chief Sustainability Officer at the Warehouse, says that sustainability needs to be affordable.
“Living sustainably shouldn’t need to cost more and by offering a range of everyday, quality products with improved environmental performance at affordable prices, we are helping to make the change […] we want to use our scale and reach to make it a little easier for customers to make more sustainable choices.”
What are “sustainability features”?
I picked up a singlet top at The Warehouse Lyall Bay, Wellington, which had a bamboo sticker on it.
The bold green text, and image of the plant, made it easy to think I was making a “green” choice.
However, while bamboo is often marketed as a natural choice, turning it into a soft fabric requires the cellulose in the plant to be chemically dissolved and bleached.
The result? Rayon, also known as viscose, which has no remaining trace of the bamboo plant.
A spokesperson from The Warehouse said it uses the descriptor “to highlight a natural and renewable material choice over a synthetic one”.
However, the singlet top also included elastane, a synthetic fabric made from petroleum.
As I walked through the women’s clothing section at the store, I spotted a bright green Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) sticker on trackpants and T-shirts.
In 2019, The Warehouse joined BCI, which claims it’s the “largest cotton sustainability programme in the world”. It licenses cotton farmers who comply with its environmental, labour and management standards.
Yet, retailers only need to buy 10% of their cotton from BCI-certified sources and “commit” to sourcing at least 50% within five years.
This means any BCI cotton in your T-shirt may also be mixed with other cotton.
At the end of 2020, The Warehouse had nearly achieved the 50% mark for its own-brand products.
The Warehouse holds a license to sell Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) products. It has been buying “FSC-certified wood and paper products since the early 2000s,” a Warehouse spokesperson said.
The Warehouse sources FSC products through suppliers who hold the FSC 100% or FSC Mix logos. While the former logo indicates all the wood is sourced from audited forests, the latter is a mix of 70% certified timber with the remainder a combination of recycled or salvaged timber.
Critics of the FSC scheme claim it has done little to stop tropical deforestation due to lax auditing processes carried out by private auditors. Critics allege there are auditors who may let some criteria slide in order to be paid.
A 2021 Greenpeace report into certification schemes and deforestation, Destruction: Certified, noted concerns with the FSC auditing process which led to “weak implementation of the standards”.
While the report noted some positive aspects of the scheme, such as workers’ rights and respect for indigenous cultures in its management standards, it also stated the scheme was an “imperfect and inconsistent tool to protect forests and people’s rights”.
A FSC spokesperson said the organisation is continuously improving its system and auditing processes.
It also has “strict rules governing the relationship between certification bodies and certificate holders.”
While the scheme is not a silver bullet to stop worldwide deforestation it believes it has “made great strides towards improving forest management”.
As part of The Warehouse Group’s aspiration to be New Zealand’s “most sustainable retailer”, it’s been carbon neutral since 2019.
Carbon offsetting is where businesses balance out the greenhouse gases they use by doing things that reduce greenhouse gases. For example, trading off the emissions created when flying in a plane by planting a tree.
The Group includes retailers Noel Leeming, Warehouse Stationery, Torpedo7 and online store The Market.
The Warehouse Group offsets its carbon emissions by investing in social programmes in India, China, and Bangladesh, as well as reducing power and waste in New Zealand.
However, its carbon calculations start when The Warehouse Group takes ownership of the goods. It doesn’t include the greenhouse gases emitted to produce the products. Nearly 500 factories supply The Warehouse home-brand products alone.
More than 65% of its goods are made in China, its next biggest overseas producer is Australia with 5.9%. Eight percent of goods are made in New Zealand.
A spokesperson for The Warehouse said the retailer is, “exploring ways we might further influence and support them to reduce their emissions”.
The Warehouse Group plans to divert 90% of its waste out of landfill by 2025.
So far, this has meant putting more Soft Plastics Recycling Scheme bins in stores.
The Warehouse Group said its customers have dropped off nearly 40 tonnes of soft plastics in the bins. That’s roughly 20% of all soft plastics collected for the scheme.
The soft plastic is made into garden edging, as well as fence posts.
The Warehouse also aims to have half of its own-brand products at stores and Warehouse Stationery packaged with recyclable or home compostable materials by 2025.
Currently, only 11% of its own brand products have this.
How can you assess green claims?
It took me hours to evaluate The Warehouse’s sustainability claims – and there’s another 18 certifications the retailer uses. Who has time to do that? More important, why should consumers have to do it at all?
While The Warehouse products may be affordable, we believe the green credentials aren’t as transparent as they need to be. Consumers need to be wary about ‘green’ marketing campaigns.
Ferrari said there needs to be standards and protections to ensure consumers are given correct information about the environmental impact of what they’re buying.
“Not everyone is up to speed with green claims,” she said.
Greenpeace claims certification schemes are often about selling more products, rather than shopping sustainably. The schemes also push the responsibility for shopping ethically on to the consumer, rather than the producers, retailers or government.
While there are protections in the Fair Trading Act to ensure businesses don’t make misleading claims, we come across a raft of questionable green claims on products from a variety of retailers and manufacturers.
From “bamboo” textile labels through to “biodegradable” coffee cups made of plastic.
The Commerce Commission received 68 complaints about green claims in the past two years.
What are other countries doing?
The European Commission (EC) is taking steps to stomp out green claims.
Its green claims initiative aims to stop greenwashing, set minimum requirements for sustainability logos and labels, as well as give consumers information on the lifespan of products.
The changes ensure consumers there get reliable information about the sustainability of the products they buy.
Manufacturers will need to substantiate any environmental claim using EU criteria. Products would go through a life cycle assessment, meaning the environmental impact would be measured from the extraction of raw materials through to the final product’s end of life.
There are no plans to put similar regulations in place here, a Ministry for the Environment (MoE) spokesperson said.
Although the MoE is working on a new waste strategy, its aim is to move New Zealand towards a low-waste economy with a focus on recycling, rather than proving green credentials.
The ministry does offer Environmental Choice New Zealand as an official sustainability label. This independent programme proves a product’s environmental credentials, but participation in this scheme is voluntary. Currently 1439 products and services have this tick.
We’d like to see the government step up and legislate stricter rules on green claims.