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January 08, 2008

The big chill

Shopping for a snack in central London yesterday evening I counted an extraordinary 78 metres (256 feet) of chiller cabinets in one small central London branch of Marks and Spencer.

Marks and Spencer have made a laudable commitment to make all it UK and Irish operations carbon neutral within five years. "We'll maximise our use of renewable energy and only use offsetting as a last resort" pledges the firm in its Plan A. In Plan A, M&S is committed to act on waste, raw materials, healthy eating, and fair trade. For example it has banned white veal and calves liver from its shelves, and is playing a leading role in an industry consortium called WRAP.

But M&S's Plan A has a huge, glaring omission: refrigeration. More than 50 percent of food in developed countries is retailed under refrigerated conditions - a factor due is large part to the open display cabinets of the kind I paced-out in Notting Hill yesterday. As a consequence, food retailers waste insane amounts of energy: a single open-fronted freezer costs 15,000 pounds (22,000 euros) per year to run in energy bills alone - and that does not include the embergy (embodied energy) involved in each unit's manufacture. Unchecked, air conditioning units and chiller cabinets will cause hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere in the next 50 years.

Off course, M&S may reply, if food were not refrigerated, a good proportion of it would rot or spoil. Up to 40 percent of fruit is lost post-harvest in some food systems. Such a loss of produce represents a waste of energy on its own account, since wasted food embodies the energy used in its production, processing and transport. Nonetheless, as things stand today, it looks as if M&S is resigned not to reduce, but to offset, the massive energy emissons from its supply, storage and retail operations when its five year deadline for Plan A expires.

The alternative would be for M&S to change its business model to one of shopless shopping, and close down most of its retail outlets. And why not? Refrigerated trucks, warehouses, and high street stores, are expensive and wasteful steps, and therefore profit-reducing costs, in the journey from farm to table. M&S is well-placed to become the radically de-centralised distribution and quality assurance platform that all towns and cities need to relocalise their food systems.

Posted by John Thackara at January 8, 2008 08:20 AM


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