The campaign against waste: Tesco's packaging cover-up
This Tesco pizza is wrapped in clingfilm, placed on a tray and put in a box. Why? Guy Adams goes in search of the answer
Thursday 25 January 2007
At Tesco, every little helps. That's why Dwayne, the man stacking shelves on the ready-meal aisle of its Ponders End superstore in north London, wears a red fleece emblazoned with the logo: "Happy to help."
Today, I've decided to take Dwayne at his word. He is, after all, unloading a trolley full of prosciutto crudo and rocket pizza, a product so absurdly over-packaged it might as well be sponsored by the plastics industry.
The pizza costs £4.49, and comes from Tesco's allegedly upmarket "Finest" range. It is presented on a polystyrene tray, wrapped in clingfilm, inside a cumbersome cardboard box.
If that wasn't enough, the box contains two further plastic bags. One is full of cheap prosciutto ham; the other, a handful of tired leaves. The idea, it seems, is to sprinkle both on top during cooking, like they do in Italy.
The combined waste produced by this simple item would fill an average kitchen bin. It's absurd; it's unnecessary; and it provides a neat, 12-inch symbol of a rampaging epidemic.
So I approach Dwayne and make a complaint. Could he, or one of his superiors, kindly explain what exactly, is the point of the packaging surrounding my pizza?
Dwayne will certainly have a go. He reckons clingfilm stops toppings falling off the pizza in transit. He can't explain the box and the other stuff but suggests I take the matter up at the checkout.
Here, I meet a kindred spirit. A till worker agrees the packaging "isn't necessary" and points me in the direction of customer services, where I queue to speak to a sweet woman called Chris.
She offers to file a complaint to head office, which will investigate and call me. That sounds like progress: I am to speak to someone who may then speak to someone who might be in a position to do something. Every little helps.
Then two bad things happen. Firstly, I am asked to leave the Ponders End store by a security guard who takes exception to The Independent's photographer
Secondly, I am given a copy of the "complaint logging" report that Chris at customer services just filed and it's a masterpiece in pointless corporate-speak which ends: "as Tesco is meant to be a green company, customer is surprised at this situation. He would like a call from head office about this situation."
Predictably, no call arrives. Then I make a discovery: Tesco's head office is in Cheshunt, a mere 20-minute drive from the dreary Enfield car park where we are eating our lunch. And so The Independent turns up on the trading estate that is home to the nerve centre of Britain's biggest retailer. I march into reception (it's decorated like a branch of Tesco) brandishing a pizza box, and clear my throat in a Churchillian manner. "I am one of your 30 million customers, and I have come to Cheshunt in the hope of speaking to somebody about the packaging on your pizza."
The receptionist looks alarmed. She picks up a telephone. In the doorway, another security guard appears. He escorts me to the car, with a piece of paper containing the freephone number of their customer service centre in Dundee.
There, a man (who declines to give his name) listens to my complaint. He advises me to speak to the store, which will take up the issue with the supplier.
"But," I say, "I've just been there, and filled in a form, and they told me they couldn't do anything, and I should contact you guys. Now you're telling me something different. Am I being lied to?"
The line goes dead.
So, finally, for the nuclear option. Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, lives a short drive from Cheshunt, in a home that might have come from the set of Footballers' Wives. Sir Terry earned £2.9m last year and a glance at his magnificent home suggests he can afford to eat Tesco's "finest" whenever he likes. But his home is empty. All lights are off, and no one answers the intercom when I buzz. After a few minutes shouting, and waving the pizza box in the general direction of the building, five workmen emerge in hi-vis jackets. They are building a large extension to Sir Terry's Hertfordshire pile. The "boss" won't be back until the weekend, they say.
Tesco says it listens to customers, and it's very good at pretending to do just that. But no one was prepared to take responsibility for a simple complaint about its packaging.
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