Terry Leahy: Don't blame us: we can't get rid of all packaging

You can't force the pace of change, even for sound environmental reasons

When I recently announced a range of far-reaching measures designed to cut Tesco's carbon footprint and give customers the information they need to do the same, I said I'd be returning to other environmental topics in the near future. One of these, packaging and packaging waste, has recently been the subject of lively media debate.

We all know there is too much packaging getting into landfill. And if the environmental reasons to cut back on this weren't compelling enough, there are very sound commercial reasons, too - we spend something like £600m each year on packaging.

Of course, the supermarkets have an important role to play in cutting out the waste they generate themselves, and at Tesco we're constantly working to improve our performance here. But if we are to make real progress in shrinking the waste mountain, we must also help shift consumer attitudes towards packaging itself. We need to ask: what is it for, and what are the consequences of taking it away?

Packaging has a variety of functions - it must protect the product from damage from the factory or farm to the customer's home. It must display a wide range of product information, from lists of ingredients and nutritional data to serving suggestions or assembly instructions. And, especially in the case of food packaging, it must help us meet the exacting demands on food quality and safety that are rightly imposed on us by the authorities and the customer.

So not all packaging is "excess" or optional, and the truth is that the benefits of smart, efficient packaging in reducing waste have been finding their way back to customers for years. In China, it has been estimated that one fifth of the food moving through the supply chain goes to waste. In the UK, by contrast, only a tiny amount - less than 2 per cent - is lost in the supply chain. Here, intelligent packaging actually reduces the amount of food waste going to landfill.

The food and retail industries have massively reduced the amount of packaging they use. We actively promote recycling among our customers, as well as trying to practise what we preach - 72 per cent of the waste generated in-store at Tesco is recycled.

We must always work hand in hand with our customers on these issues. Last August, I announced that we would be awarding Green Clubcard Points to those customers who reuse bags of any sort when they shop at Tesco. This scheme has been a fantastic success. To date, we have given out something like 300 million fewer carrier bags as customers choose to reuse.

It shows that if you explain carefully why it is important to reduce waste, and make it convenient, easy and attractive for the customer, the impact can be huge. The environment benefits and customers are happier too.

But you can't force the pace of change, even if it is for sound environmental reasons. Customers have to want to change, and that can take time. A while ago we tried to dispense with the cardboard sleeve that wrapped some of the ready meals in our Value range. Instead, we printed the ingredients and serving instructions on the plastic film that covers the tray. Customers liked the product, but hated the packaging, and took their money back to products with a cardboard sleeve.

As I said in my recent speech on climate change, customers want to do more on the environment. But they want more information so they can be confident they are doing the right thing, and they want to know that their actions will genuinely make a difference, and won't cost them more.

Our plan on climate change tackles each of these points - in particular by making green choices more affordable and by promising that we will set out on the road to a single measure of the carbon footprint of each product we sell.

We must now approach packaging in similar way. As I have explained, there are dilemmas to be solved. The solutions will not be easy, and some may take time. But we have started a conversation with our customers on these issues through our Community Plan, and we know they want us to help them to do more. And so we will.

There is at least one choice that is simple for Tesco. As we work to reduce our environmental impact on every level, we will continue to look for ways to cut excess packaging and offer our customers rational choices. We will continue to offer quality and value, and above all we will continue to respond to what our customers ask of us.

And perhaps this will prove to be the most empowering choice of all.

The writer is chief executive of Tesco