After a slow start, garden retailers are now falling over each other to demonstrate their green credentials to customers. Next month's Garden Retail Awards features a slew of entrants in the Best Environmental Policy category.
As an inherently environmental industry, garden retail might be expected to be on top of the curve in introducing green policies, but it is not alone. Across the wider retail sector, companies as diverse as Marks & Spencer and retail services firm Bunzl are adopting green strategies, in spite of the economic uncertainty.
HTA director general David Gwyther says: "There is nothing in the current economic turbulence that invalidates the importance of responding to the threats of climate change and turning them to our advantage.
"Given that we know that the garden industry tends to benefit in times of recession, there are two compelling reasons why garden retailers should continue to clean up their act as far as is reasonably possible."
Many environmentally friendly initiatives are hampered by a perception that they come at a price premium. But the Leisure & Outdoor Furniture Association's LOFAmark scheme aims to offer customers sustainably produced goods without the price hit, according to project manager Steve Hallam.
"We can see no reason why there should be a cost premium," he says. "Work in the mainstream furniture industry has shown that looking at the supply chain in a different way can actually bring cost savings.
"Most consumers are willing to buy the sustainable option as long as there's no compromise on price, quality or convenience. We think we can offer that, and the added attraction of accreditation, which should mean more sales."
Certified furniture is due on the market in early 2010, he adds.
Garden retail consultant John Stanley told retailers at his seminars this summer that a green image will be increasingly important. "You need a consistent message," he says. "Should you be selling noxious weeds as ornamentals, poisons rather than green alternatives? If you buy products from the Far East, will the customer accept that in two years' time?"
But an HTA consumer survey in June this year suggested that consumers rarely make the connection between garden retailing and sustainability. If they favour locally grown crops over imported ones, this tends to be because they support local businesses, rather than reducing "plant miles", the survey found.
Likewise, if consumers feed the birds it is more likely to be because they enjoy having wildlife visit their gardens, rather than out of concern for biodiversity. And they compost to improve the soil rather than to reduce their garden's environmental footprint.
In light of this, does it matter much if garden centres have environmental policies? The UK's largest chain, Wyevale, clearly thinks it does. According to Plan Apple, which the company launched last month, Wyevale states: "We have viewed sustainable development as an important commercial opportunity to attract the green pound.
"We also recognised that if we got it wrong, we could open ourselves up to criticism with subsequent results around poor staff morale, customer complaints and potentially from regulatory pressures."
As well as pushing "carbon positive gardening" and minimising waste, peat and water use, the policy promotes social goals. These include "ensuring our supply chain benefits more people", for example, by insisting on labour standards in overseas quarries.
Garden Retail Awards finalist in the Best Environmental Policy category Wyevale phased out the notoriously energy-hungry patio heaters last year and aims by the end of next year to source its timber products from Tropical Forest Trust or Forestry Stewardship Council-certified sources.
The company aims to be carbon-neutral by 2010, and to sell carbon credits on the open market, providing a means for other companies to offset their carbon emissions.
Wyevale has also committed to stop using expanded polystyrene bedding packs from the start of next year, obliging supplier growers to use recyclable plastic trays instead. It already has plant-pot recycling facilities in all its stores. Sustainability director Dr Alan Knight, who has driven forward the policy, describes plastic plant pots as "the garden centre world's equivalent of the plastic carrier bag".
The HTA-led Growing Media Initiative aims to promote peat-free and peat-reduced growing media across garden retail. It has brought on board retailers including Homebase and B&Q, and manufacturers such as Westland Horticulture. Members are expected to show progressive decline in the proportion of peat in their growing media sales. More than two-thirds of the peat sold in the UK is bought by amateur gardeners.
Dobbies managing director James Barnes says his company "must be at the forefront of peat reduction and will do whatever we must to get there".
Another Garden Retail Awards finalist for the Best Environmental Policy, Dobbies is also piloting a green-themed "eco-department" in its Edinburgh store, showing customers how to include eco-friendly products and techniques in their garden, such as composting and water harvesting. It has introduced environmental interpretation centres known as The Greenhouse at its Dunfermline and Southport stores, covering gardening for wildlife, vegetable growing and pest and disease control.
The HTA's survey suggested that smaller independent retailers unencumbered with the "big business" tag have more credibility among consumers when promoting sustainability. For Leicester-based Palmers Garden Centre, which is also a contender for the Best Environmental Policy accolade, the driving factor behind a new environmental policy was economy rather than image. "It started off as a cost saving," says managing director Caroline Palmer. "But now we promote it in-store, with signage asking, 'How green are you?'"
The company offered a pot re-use scheme long before pot-recycling became widespread in garden centres, Palmer says.
"It's particularly popular with schools and allotment holders. We don't make a huge thing of it, though," she adds. "I'm not sure the average customer is that aware of the environmental issues. Sales of conventional compost are still higher than peat-reduced or peat-free. There is an opportunity in the back-to-basics approach such as grow-your-own. We're just taking delivery of breathable wooden compost bins and will also be promoting raised vegetable beds. Making savings and being green go well together."
GREEN FROM THE GROUND UP
As Wyevale and Dobbies compete to build garden centres in the York area, each will be impressing on planners the green credentials of their new-builds.
A Dobbies representative said: "An ecologist is employed with each new-build to ensure local habitat is protected and where possible enhanced. The company uses sustainable forms of landscaping through the inclusion of sustainable drainage, native plant material and ecologically sound principles of landscape maintenance."
The Midlothian-based company plans to add three stores to its 24-strong chain next year. All new stores have solar panels to heat water, and the company aims to use a minimum of 10 per cent energy from renewable sources.
The company has been rated "very good" following assessment using the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), the most widely used environmental assessment method for buildings.
SIX REASONS FOR GOING GREEN
1. Cost-saving techniques
Grow-your-own, composting and water-harvesting are gaining in popularity as customers tighten their belts. But they all require up-front investment, as well as advice, which garden centres can provide.
2. Legislation and regulation
Every year more pesticides are being withdrawn, regulations on waste disposal are tightened and planning applications increasingly take into account issues ranging from energy efficiency to water run-off.
3. Waste disposal costs
The Landfill Tax, combined with higher transport costs, means that even a no-money deal for waste collection and recycling is often more attractive than disposal. Waste-reduction arrangements with suppliers can also prevent costs from arising in the first place.
4. Increased footfall
The eco-conscious consumer wants to combine the "trip to the skip" with other tasks, so why not provide recycling facilities on site? Plant-pot recycling is already in place in a number of centres.
5. A consistent message
Many gardeners feel that their hobby is not merely pleasurable but also beneficial. They want to know that their purchases fit into that viewpoint.
6. Appeal to potential recruits
In a recent US survey, 36 per cent of adults said they would be more inclined to work for a "green" company - and that figure is almost twice as high among those born after 1980.