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Tesco’s sustainable and business goals in CEE – interview with Matt Simister, CEO of Tesco Central Europe

Matt Simister will be one of the speakers of the Budapest Climate Summit, to be held on 9 October 2020.

The last months have been of particular importance for Tesco. On one hand, the food retailer had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and it was crucial to handle the situation well. On the other hand, the Group has been going through some internal changes, which led to the sale of the Polish business.

CEENERGYNEWS spoke with Matt Simister, CEO of Tesco Central Europe about the company’s support to local communities during these moments of crisis as well as the sustainable and business goals of the Group.

“COVID-19 brought extraordinary circumstances for the entire society and economy, Tesco included,” Mr Simister begins. “From the outset we focused on four things: keeping food on the shelves, keeping colleagues and customers safe, supporting colleagues through challenging times and continuing to help the wider community.” 

Mr Simister couldn’t be prouder of how his colleagues responded. They all learnt a huge amount, especially the power of a single-minded focus. In the process, they managed extreme peaks and troughs in demand, they installed physical social distancing barriers in all of the stores in Hungary in a handful of days, they recruited hundreds of temporary colleagues to keep up with demand and they made their biggest ever one-off donation to the Hungarian Food Bank. 

“It wasn’t just the big things though,” adds Mr Simister. “Colleagues across Hungary went to extraordinary lengths to keep serving customers and look after each other and their communities.”

Also, the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for every company to be more sustainable. Tesco considers climate change as one of the biggest environmental challenges the world is facing. Therefore, already in 2009, the company set the ambition to become a zero-carbon business by 2050

“Food is at the heart of the global sustainability challenge and we need to work together globally to make sure we can feed everyone on the planet in a way which doesn’t cost the earth,” says Mr Simister. “Retailers, producers, growers, farmers, agri-businesses, food manufacturers, households and governments need to cooperate better to reduce the impact of food on natural resources and the climate.”

“I see Tesco playing an important role in connecting different players in the industry to make a difference. We already do. The real prize will be that different stakeholders in the world of food work together more effectively to tackle the environmental challenges posed by food production and consumption.”

When it comes to Central and Eastern Europe, Tesco has already reduced emissions its operations by 35 per cent since 2015. 

“We’re working to reduce to zero the amount of food fit for human consumption that is wasted in our operations and we have reduced waste by 67 per cent since 2016/17,” continues Mr Simister. “And we’re working to make all Tesco packaging 100 per cent recyclable by 2025.”

In particular, Tesco has been actively supporting the fight against food waste, in line with the Little Helps Plan Community Strategy.

“We’ve reduced food waste by 66 per cent in Hungary since 2016-17,” reveals Mr Simister. “The biggest thing we did was understand where food waste was occurring in our operations and then set clear targets, against which we measure our progress.”

“In the process, we became the first food business in Europe to publish our food waste data and we have been doing this for our Hungarian operations since 2017. The data has given us a much clearer understanding of the problem and provided a focus for our action.”

Tesco has also built tackling food waste into its business plans so that everyone knows it’s a priority. And it appears to be working. 

“We have step changed the way we operate, fine-tuned our internal processes,” underlines Mr Simister. “We do everything we can to eliminate food waste, but where it does still occur, we offer it for those in need.” 

Today, over 180 Tesco shops in Hungary donate any unsold food at the end of every day to the Hungarian Food Banks, saving 27.400 tonnes of food from being wasted in Hungary alone and providing the equivalent of 68,5 million meals to those in need. 

“But we want to do more, getting as close to zero waste as we can and importantly we want to work with our suppliers to reduce food waste in production,” continues the CEO of Tesco Central Europe. “Experience from elsewhere shows what a difference improved cooperation makes, allowing retailers to respond better to peaks in production, making sure more food that is produced actually makes its way onto people’s dinner plates. It’s an enormous challenge and one which we need to address from both a social and environmental perspective.”

Tesco is also sustainably active in other markets. In Slovakia, for example, the company is raising awareness around the topics which are important for the protection of the planet. The chain has recently joined the Obehové Slovensko platform, which includes several local companies with the same goals concerning the circular economy. In this regard, Tesco is already on the map of sustainable fashion retailers. More and more products are made of recycled polyester substances. Last year, Tesco produced recycled fibres from more than 30 million plastic bottles.

However, not all the countries are the same and, earlier in June, Tesco announced the sale of 301 stores in Poland to Salling Group.

“In Poland, we had a relatively small market share with structural market challenges, high costs and we faced challenges that we do not experience in Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic,” explains Mr Simister. 

But he reassures that the future of the retail chain in the other countries of the region is safe. 

“In Hungary, we have a market-leading position and have now restructured our business so that it can meet the consumers’ needs of retailers into the future,” he concludes. “We’re absolutely committed to serving customers in Hungary and are planning to grow our business in the region.”

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