For online organic retailer Abel & Cole, sustainability is much more than a marketing tool. Fred Searle visits the veg box specialist to learn more about its meticulous efforts in environmental and ethical supply
It’s a regrettable truth that greenwashing is now common in many industries, and the fresh produce trade is no exception. Fortunately, there are also plenty of companies that walk the sustainable talk – and one business that goes the extra mile to minimise its environmental impact is Abel & Cole.
The online retailer, which began life as a door-to-door potato seller in Brixton back in 1988, has flourished into an innovative supplier of a wide range of organic, sustainable and ethically sourced products. Today, the company delivers its customers everything from fruit and veg boxes, to meat, bread, cleaning products, pet food – and everything in between.
While Abel & Cole’s prices are beyond some consumers, the fact that turnover more than doubled between 2012 (£46.5m) and 2022 (£97.6m) is evidence that demand for sustainable and ethical food and groceries is on the rise among more affluent consumers. The retailer, which has its offices in Wimbledon, south London, would argue that its punchy pricing is backed up by an uncompromising stance on sustainability, high-quality produce, and premium customer service.
When it comes to the environment, it is clear that Abel & Cole isn’t just interested in using sustainability as a marketing tool. Rather, it thinks carefully about what is the most environmentally friendly option, stays transparent about its practices, and wants to be part of the grocery sector’s wider conversation on sustainability.
Fresh produce heroes
The fresh produce for its ever-popular fruit and veg boxes and wider à-la-carte range has organic certification wherever possible. And if a product in the wider grocery range isn’t organic, customers can be sure it has been sourced from a fellow B Corp (more on that later on).
There is a strong focus on sourcing British produce where possible, and although 30-40 per cent of the fruit and veg is imported across the year, Abel & Cole has a strict no airfreight policy.
The retailer’s close relationship with its suppliers is evident when talking to its sustainability and ethics advisor, Ed Ayton. He namechecks organic seed potato grower and supplier Andrew Skea (of Skea Organics) as one of his “fresh produce heroes”. Another is Joe Rolfe of RBOrganic, who he says has proved two things: firstly, that “organic carrots taste better – because they have a thicker cell wall, which is where the sugars are”, and secondly that organic yields can sometimes outstrip conventional yields. “Joe is the rotation master.”
This careful approach – which prioritises the genuine impact of a decision rather than its optics – is exemplified by Abel & Cole’s recent move to eliminate compostable packaging from its entire fruit and vegetable range. In some products, this has required a switch to a plastic alternative, but Abel & Cole’s reasoning is that, in general, its shoppers are more able and likely to recycle plastic than they are to compost.
The opportunity for shoppers to have their flexible plastics collected and recycled through Abel & Cole’s groundbreaking Plastic Pick Up service is an important factor here, as is the fact that 30-40 per cent of the retailer’s customers live in London and may not have a garden.
The packaging puzzle
Using sustainable packaging is an area that sustainability head Hugo Lynch says Abel & Cole “has always tried to lead in”. For the past 18 years, the business has collected and reused the transit packaging employed to box up its grocery deliveries. And Lynch says this practice is now built into the company’s finance model as an important cost-saving measure.
The retailer has always challenged itself to use the most sustainable packaging possible and two Abel & Cole studies, conducted in August 2021 and February 2022, found that, on average, it uses 77 per cent less plastic in its organic fruit and veg boxes than four of the major supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Ocado and Waitrose.
As well as validating Abel & Cole’s approach, the studies provided a useful snapshot of how the amount of packaging it uses can fluctuate throughout the year, with seasonal produce often needing to be packaged in different ways.
“We’ve continued to remove packaging when we can, and because nobody other than our staff handles the fresh produce before it arrives with the customer – which is obviously not the case at a physical supermarket – we’ve been able to remove packaging altogether for a lot of things.”
There are, of course, some fruits and vegetables that Abel & Cole packages to preserve shelf life – for example, paper packaging is used to portion carrots – but the retailer has a dedicated agronomy and quality team to check the quality and shelf life of produce and ensure that packaging is only used when necessary.
Plastic packaging is relied on to preserve the shelf life of leafy greens and cucumbers, but Abel & Cole tries to avoid plastic packaging at certain times of year – for example, when leafy greens are in season in the UK and don’t have as far to travel.
Lynch adds that Abel & Cole has always designed its packaging to fit into established recycling streams where possible, however removal and reduction are the top priorities in its packaging policy. On top of this, all the packaging that the retailer adds to the produce itself (for portioning etc) is designed so it could be reused.
“Whilst we’ve been proactive about all this, our customers also see it as a really big issue and when we did an assessment for renewing our B Corp certification, this was one of the key findings.”
B Corp benefits
Which leads on nicely to that coveted certification – a title that only a select few players in the UK fresh produce industry, such as Riverford, Oddbox and Rubies in the Rubble, can boast. B Corp certification measures a company’s entire social and environmental impact – although Ayton says the assessment is “relatively light touch” on environmental sustainability.
B Corp is deliberately holistic in its assessment and, according to its website, provides proof that a business “meets high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials”.
Abel & Cole has been certified B Corp since 2018 and has since been reassessed every three years, improving its impact score each time. B Corp certification, which has been around since 2006 in the US, was first adopted in Britain back in 2015. As such, Abel & Cole was among the first UK B Corps and has used this as a reference point – to be proud of and to shout about.
“The certification is really useful for setting a sustainable blueprint for how we want to grow as a business, and it allows a pre-competitive space to share ideas and best practice with a wide range of other B Corps,” says Ayton.
“The certification doesn’t come easy, and assessment is both granular and extensive – you have to keep lots of plates spinning at once. But it does a lot for a company’s reputation – everyone knows that B Corps are great places to work, so it helps us attract better talent and hang onto staff for longer.”
When it comes to environmental impact, the business continues to set (and meet) ambitious sustainability goals, and carbon emissions targets are unsurprisingly central to its growth strategy.
“We saw a really big growth of customers during the pandemic and fortunately we’ve retained a lot of those customers, so the business is bigger now than pre-Covid,” says Lynch. “Obviously, as the business grows, our absolute emissions will increase, but we rank ourselves based on our carbon intensity [Abel & Cole’s emission rate relative to the energy intensity of its activities] and we’re continuing to move in the right direction.
“In terms of our carbon emissions, which is our kind of north star, we pledge to reduce our Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 in absolute terms, in line with our Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) commitments.
“We also track our Scope 3 emissions in absolute terms, and we’ve pledged that they can’t exceed the level in our baseline year of 2020. Encouragingly, our Scope 3 emissions have tracked below that 2020 baseline for the past three years but that’s something we need to keep an eye on.”
Decarbonising the delivery fleet is another important focus for Abel & Cole and the business is aiming to use only electric vans in cities by 2025, which would significantly reduce its Scope 1 emissions.
“We’ve already been proactive in switching to hydro-treated vegetable oil as a diesel replacement,” Lynch adds. “This obviously isn’t very impactful when it comes to our clean air commitment, but it delivers about a 90 per cent reduction in a vehicle’s carbon emissions.
“The rollout has been dictated primarily by access to the fuel, but so far, we’ve managed to turn it on in three out of our nine depots.”
As Abel & Cole faces into an uncertain future for the environment, as well as the economy, it is clear the business isn’t willing to compromise on sustainability – which continues to form the backbone of its brand identity.
The meticulous eye for detail of its passionate and well-informed sustainability team is an example for others in the industry to follow.
In February, Abel & Cole rolled out eco-impact labelling across 87 products in its fruit and vegetable range as part of a trial with Life Cycle Assessment specialists, Foundation Earth.
In recognition of their forward-thinking partnership, the two businesses were jointly named FPJ’s Sustainable Champion for 2023 in the inaugural Festival of Fresh Awards.
Products are scored on environmental impacts, such as CO2 emissions and water pollution, through a traffic light system ranging from A+ (dark green) to G (red).
The retailer is still in the process of assessing the success of the trial but says the labels are here to stay, with plans to potentially extend the labels to more products next year.
“We wanted to find another way to help shoppers make more sustainable choices,” says Abel & Cole’s sustainability and ethics advisor Ed Ayton. “Traffic-light-style front-of-pack nutritional labelling introduced by the UK government and devolved administrations is recognised to have had a positive impact on people’s health, so we wanted to emulate that system.
“We feel there are huge advantages to supporting the Foundation Earth system for communicating products’ environmental impact but ultimately systems like this will only work if everyone backs the same horse or a unified system is mandated by government.”