UPDATED 1 Sept: The EI library in London is temporarily closed to the public, as a precautionary measure in light of the ongoing COVID-19 situation. The Knowledge Service will still be answering email queries via email , or via live chats during working hours (09:15-17:00 GMT). Our e-library is always open for members here: eLibrary , for full-text access to over 200 e-books and millions of articles. Thank you for your patience.
New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Food for thought: How major food retailers approach net zero


10 min read

Woman carrying plastic shopping bags walking past the front of a Waitrose supermarket Photo: John Lewis Partnership    
The John Lewis Partnership of John Lewis and Waitrose stores has an SDTi-validated net zero pathway to ensure it hits climate related targets by specified dates

Photo: John Lewis Partnership    

Major food retailers are putting considerable effort into their net zero strategies. Significant initiatives are underway by the likes of the John Lewis Partnership, with its Waitrose operations, and Marks & Spencer, with its famous Plan A sustainability campaign. New Energy World Features Editor Brian Davis examines their strategic approaches to the energy transition and carbon emissions reduction.

In his role as Energy and Innovation Manager of the John Lewis Partnership, Neil Coleman sees decarbonisation strategy as ‘a moving target which is constantly evolving’. Energy optimisation is a key objective, with day-to-day monitoring of setpoints for building energy management, and a focus on capital investment for upgrade and innovation in heating, lighting, air conditioning and transport.


‘John Lewis has an SBTi (Science-based Targets Initiative) validated net zero pathway, to ensure it hits climate related targets by specified dates. The SBTi pathway helps validate that our strategy is cohesive, coherent and deliverable,’ he explains.


The John Lewis Partnership has committed to be net zero in its own operations by 2035 across Scope 1 and 2 energy and industrial market-based emissions versus baseline FY2020/2021. However, Scope 3 is more challenging, with a target to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the entire supply chain by 2050. The latter is the responsibility of the Ethics and Sustainability team, which focuses on sourcing policies for products like palm oil and sustainable wood, for example. Coleman’s team is focused on decarbonisation of the built environment serving retail stores (34 under the John Lewis name, and 10 times as many badged as Waitrose), plus warehouses and other facilities.


John Lewis’s net zero strategy is underpinned by renewable electricity. Coleman makes the point that: ‘We’re looking to use renewable electricity to power our buildings, but also transitioning from diesel and other transport fuels to electricity, by electrifying our delivery vans and also heavily investing in biomethane.’


Currently, about 400 of the 600 vehicles in the John Lewis truck fleet run on biomethane, along with a refuelling system supporting it in Aylesford, Kent, in partnership with CNG/biomethane supplier ReFuels. The plan is to decarbonise all transport, including refrigeration trailers, by 2030.


Down on its farm in Leckford, Hampshire, John Lewis Partnership developed a biomethane capture solution in 2021, where it is capturing fugitive biomethane derived from the manure of 500 cattle, to offset the use of diesel in its tractors. This initiative aims to cut down up to 1,300 t/y of carbon emissions and is being used as a showcase to help farmers in the Waitrose supply chain decarbonise their own operations.


For electricity, John Lewis has established power purchase agreements (PPAs) with a number of different sources providing wind and solar energy. Some (but not many) buildings are equipped with solar power. For the remainder, electricity is purchased from the wholesale market with REGO (renewable energy guarantees of origin)-backed electricity.


The Partnership has a single (but unspecified) renewable energy supplier ‘for consistency and streamlined billing’, says Coleman. ‘There’s value through procurement using a single supplier to handle a diverse portfolio of about 500 buildings ranging from shops to warehousing.’


Measuring performance   
Effective carbon reporting is a priority. ‘We’re well on our way and on track from a carbon perspective,’ says Coleman. ‘We have a net zero strategy with effective carbon reduction of building emissions, transport emissions and refrigeration emissions. Though diesel is still used for standby generators, we have a plan to transition to HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil).’


Indeed, the Partnership has won an array of awards in the renewables arena. Highly commended under the British Retail Consortium’s award for ‘Driving towards net zero properties’, the Partnership was recognised for its long-term focus on cutting the emissions from refrigeration units in Waitrose. Working in collaboration with Wirth Research, the group created digital twins of its stores to test scenarios for potential heat pump options and the impact on energy efficiency.


John Lewis has deployed several innovative technologies to reduce energy use in stores. The Eco Blade, developed by Wirth Research, has been retrofitted to refrigerated cases in over 200 branches since 2021, to keep cold air in the cabinets. In addition, Wirth Research’s Air Door stops cold air coming into a store in the winter or hot air entering in the summer. They feature electronically commutated fan technology along with improved heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) control technology.


The latest generation of LED lighting has also been retrofitted in numerous branches and non-trade buildings, with overall estimated savings in excess of 30 MWh/y.


John Lewis has installed a total of 22 water- and air source heat pumps. ‘The water source heat pump is particularly efficient for our refrigeration, providing hot water and heating for branches,’ says Coleman.


‘We’re well on our way and on track from a carbon perspective. We have a net zero strategy with effective carbon reduction of building emissions, transport emissions and refrigeration emissions.’ – Neil Coleman, Energy and Innovation Manager of the John Lewis Partnership


The John Lewis Partnership has worked with the Energy Institute to create a customised training portal, based on EnergyAware, an interactive tool for improving an organisation’s energy efficiency journey. It is designed to help employees understand how to manage their energy usage, cut organisational costs and reduce carbon emissions.


‘We use several fully customised versions: one for head office partners, one for the shop partners and one for the warehouse partners, with different options for building management and energy efficiency,’ Coleman explains.


There is also a behavioural change campaign, to capture hearts and minds along the journey to net zero, as well as focus attention on how much energy is used as a business. ‘There are checklists, guides which people can try so they can create their own local energy audit and make sure that nothing is causing excess energy overall or waste,’ he says.


Moreover, Coleman stresses the need to educate the supply chain, ‘particularly with regard to upskilling maintenance of decarbonised systems for the future’.



So, what are the key challenges on the road to net zero?


Coleman suggests: ‘Technology is a challenge – particularly heat pumps, which are very complicated compared to conventional boilers. Cost is also a big issue, not only from the capital cost perspective but also the ongoing operating costs and potential impact on the supply chain.’


Moreover, he argues: ‘There aren’t that many contractors in this industry, and probably not enough equipment available. If everybody decides to install heat pumps in five years’ time, it’s not really possible. I think a phased approach to decarbonisation investment makes sense. We’ve been learning, we have evolved and as we deliver projects and test technologies we adapt and change our strategy. It’s very much a moving target.’


Based on tracking a massive amount of energy-related data, Coleman maintains: ‘There’s also a big opportunity using energy data to remotely control energy utilisation in stores, using global setpoint changes to adjust temperatures more dynamically.’


What’s more, every store is different – in size and location.


‘There is also a need to align investment to existing capital replacement programmes… Considering the embodied carbon element, we need to make sure we’re not throwing things away that are perfectly serviceable in the short term.’


Nevertheless, Coleman is eager to emphasise: ‘The net zero journey is fully achievable for any deliverable. From an investment perspective, you can’t stand still. You can’t wait. We need to be on the front foot when it comes to the targets. If we leave it, we’re only going to have to spend more in the future.’ 


The Marks & Spencer sustainability strategy   
 interior entrance to M&S store, with shopping trolleys and baskets and advertising boards

Plan A in action: The new M&S Liverpool supermarket incudes LED lighting, a natural refrigeration system, building management system and sub-metering of energy use – the move has reduced carbon emissions by 42%
Photo: M&S

Marks & Spencer (M&S) launched one of the first fully integrated sustainability programmes in 2007 as Plan A – with the famous byline ‘…because there’s no Plan B’. It remains a corporate strategy for the retailer, which operated just over 1,000 stores in the UK in 2023, although accountability for delivery is devolved to each of the Food and Clothing & Home Managing Directors.


The company says: ‘Today, our singular focus is on becoming a net zero business by 2040. Plan A is absolutely core to that. However, achieving net zero means we have to fundamentally change how we make, move and sell our products, and our leadership has brought a sharper focus by embedding net zero across the key workstreams within our strategic programme.’ (See also its latest sustainability report.)


It reports that a key challenge in decarbonisation is in the lack of detail in emissions data. That matters because the majority of its carbon footprint (some 94%) is indirect, or Scope 3, emissions associated with making and sourcing M&S Food and Clothing & Home products. But, it adds, this is a challenge that faces the whole retail industry.


At the same time, M&S highlights several sustainability initiatives. For example, its Food business has joined ‘Manufacturing 2030’, a cross-industry platform that supports suppliers’ measuring, managing and reducing their emissions. With Mondra, M&S has tracked and developed carbon footprints for more than 5,000 products. It also continues to be involved in Cascale [formerly the Sustainable Apparel Coalition].


The company states that its 2030 targets are a 55% reduction in total location-based Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions versus 2016/2017 base year, and a 55% reduction in Scope 3 GHG emissions versus 2016/2017 base year.


Turning to its own operations, it has focused on improving efficiencies, reducing waste, improving GHG emission measurements and tracking capabilities. The company says: ‘We have updated our new store specification model to be 100% electric, fully LED, with EV [electric vehicle] car charging point provision (where possible subject to the lease and landlord), voltage optimisation and having energy-efficient fridge doors in our food halls.’ It credits the doors alone with energy savings of 20–30%.


But sometimes there is no solution but to move premises. At the end of 2023, M&S relocated its Liverpool store to a more efficient and modern building. The store now features LED lighting, a natural refrigeration system, building management system and sub-metering of energy use. The move has reduced carbon emissions by 42%.


Although the food brand does not offset emissions, it does redirect funds historically spent on offsetting to support innovative action to reduce emissions across the company’s supply chain (the Plan A Accelerator Fund). As part of that, it has been trialling use of AI data to predict a store’s optimal HVAC controls to reduce energy consumption. Trialled across six stores, the aim is to reduce HVAC costs by up to 30%. When rolled out across the M&S estate, this could save an estimated 2,000 tonnes of carbon and £3mn annually.