Supermarket giant Tesco is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. How will the retailer achieve its eco-fiendly goal, and what are the effects on its workforce? Tesco’s global technology and architect director Mike Yorwerth talks to MeetTheBossTV‘s Jonathon Spragg about what it takes to go green.

MeetTheBossTV: Two years ago Tesco put together a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2020. Could you explain the goal and also what that means for Tesco and its customers?
Mike Yorwerth: We put in place this plan two years ago to say that by 2020 we’d reduce our carbon emissions on a like-for-like basis by 2006 by 50 per cent, so that means for every single shop reducing the emissions in that shop – whether it be from energy, from lighting, from heating, from refrigeration, and also from transportation – by 50 per cent. Those are the broad targets and actually, since then, we’ve gone further and said that by 2050 we’ll aim to be carbon neutral.

We see the role of our customers, consumers of the world, as playing a huge role in moving us towards a more sustainable economy and more sustainable consumption in a world where by, in 30 or 40 years’ time, people will need to live on possibly a fifth of the carbon they use today.

As the global technology and architect director at Tesco, what specifically is your role in delivering on what is a very ambitious plan?
Firstly, I kicked off the programme a couple of years ago and I have personal accountability for it.

Secondly, it’s what the programme looks like. The crucial thing for me is [that it’s] not just an internal focused programme.

It’s very easy when you think of green IT to think about how we reduce the amount of power we use for powering servers or we switch printers off and we switch monitors off – which is fine – but actually there’s a bigger role for IT to play. So, if I look at IT as a proportion of the carbon footprint of Tesco, IT is quite a small proportion: it’s of the order of two to three per cent of the overall carbon footprint of Tesco, but it plays a role in reducing the carbon footprint of the other 98 per cent.

That’s a big part of the programme because… technology can play right the way through the supply chain, whether it’s providing information to our suppliers; better forecasting information to suppliers so that they produce less and they ship less so that we store less, so that we ship less to our stores; in the distribution and supply chain so that we get better transportation and routing and things like that.

Then you go into the store and the crucial things in the store environment around the biggest energy users in stores are things like refrigeration and HVAC [heating, ventilating, and air conditioning], so there’s lots of work we can do there to reduce the carbon footprint of Tesco kind of using IT.

What advice would you give to SMEs that are looking to develop green IT within their company?
I don’t think it needs to be a big investment and actually it’s more about an attitude and approach, and this is why we started it.

If I look at green IT and specifically within IT we started it as a lean Six Sigma programme because that’s all about efficiency, and if we look around us, the way we have done IT in the past has been terribly inefficient. It’s certainly not unknown that server utilisation in the days before virtualisation, server utilisation was of the order of two to five to maybe 10 per cent.

tesco metro

Tesco plans to be carbon neutral by 2050
(Photo credit: markhillary via Flickr under the following Creative Commons Licence)

A server that was on average utilised about 10 per cent was probably quite busy actually, but that’s terribly wasteful, and in most organisations the IT group has no real understanding of its energy use. So if you start initially to talk about energy use, people get their heads around actually there’s a benefit, there’s a saving that goes in here as well.

But then what you need to quickly get on to is, rather than talking about kilowatt hours and energy and things like that, to talk about carbon and the importance of carbon and getting people to understand kilograms of carbon, tons of carbon, because it’s much more emotive.

The next thing is, make some changes that people see quite quickly. We did one in here, which was to remove all of the printers and replace them with one centralised printer with follow-me printing. What would normally happen [was] there was a number of printers per department, you’d print a document off, and you’d forget about it, then you’d print another one and go, ‘oh no, I’ve got another one’, but by removing all the printers you take that ease of printing away from people.

People think about printing. People will go up to a printer, they swipe their badge, and it’s only when they swipe their badge does it print off. It’s a very quick and simple change that people have seen that kind of goes, ‘okay, I understand what we’re doing here’. We’ve actually significantly reduced our energy use by doing that.

Probably the biggest consumers are the other customers themselves, how are you looking to impact their behaviours, looking to change their behaviours moving forward?
Well, I think it’s about a number of things. It’s about providing customers with simple information. We’ve carbon-footprinted a few hundred of our products so you can look on the back of a carton of orange juice and see what its carbon footprint is – if it’s concentrated orange juice that doesn’t need to be stored in a fridge or it’s fresh orange juice that has to be refrigerated throughout the journey – so you can start to understand and decide that you can make those tradeoffs, so it’s a bit about giving information.

Secondly it’s about…

…encouragement as well, so encouraging our customers that it’s okay to be green and providing the information to do that.

How important is it then for business to almost visually show the customer that they’re being carbon efficient?
I think it’s incredibly important because it shows that we’re taking a lead and it shows that it’s important to us and customers can feel comfortable that if they feel it’s important then they can do it as well. It’s not something odd and it’s not something different. It’s something we’ll all be faced with in the future.

What lessons would you say that you’ve learned and would you have done things differently in any way?
I think we started without a bold plan and so I would say be really bold in the plan, look at both the non-IT and the IT, and more importantly, get those emblematic things done first, so do the things like I talked about around the printer, do those things up front that people can say, ‘Okay, that is a change’.

How would a member of your senior team describe your leadership style?
I think they’d describe me as very open. I’m open to new ideas. I like change. I’m actually quite democratic – which can be both a strength and a weakness in a leader. They would see I work well in a group with them, but I also have some very firm views and can bring those emotions and those views to help with communication, with influencing and that sort of thing. Those are the sorts of things I would say.

Do you agree that making mistakes makes a successful business?
Making mistakes as long as you don’t make them too often. One of our core sayings in Tesco is we try to get it right first time. That doesn’t mean we do get it right first time but, generally, if we don’t get it right first time we will get it right second time. So failing is fine as long as you fail fast is the way I would say it.

Throughout your career what has been a mistake that you’ve learned from the most?
One that certainly I learned quite a lot from was when I first joined Tesco I looked after the infrastructure and the operation for, our online business, so I was essentially the shopkeeper.


A new approach to printing is helping Tesco cuts its energy usage
(Photo credit: Tesco)

One particular point, I made the call that we’d done enough testing and we’d done enough user testing and IT testing to launch something to our customers against the judgment of my team, and I got it wrong. We launched and we had huge issues and I spent 48 hours of not sleeping fixing problems with the team.

What that has taught me is listen to your team when they’re really telling you things with passion, because they were. In this case deadlines were more important to me than listening to my team, and that was a massive learning.

What advice would you give the CIOs of tomorrow?
Use technology as a foundation, so make sure that you are credible as a technologist both within the organiation and outside the organisation, the IT organisation, but be able to translate that into non-technology speak for everybody.

I think a big role of leaders in IT are around being great translators, great people who can interpret difficult technical problems into simple words for the business and vice versa, interpret business requirements into ‘And so what does that mean for IT?’ I think the other side of it then is to focus on the ‘I’ of IT, not just the ‘T’. So focus on the importance of information and not just data turning into information, so management information that drives the business and changes it.

I think that gives a great foundation, but the other crucial thing for leaders in IT is to learn about the business you’re in. Although technology is a great leveller, actually what stands people apart is an understanding of the business – for example, in my business it’s retail so I’ve got 20 years in IT but I’ve got 20 years in retail as well.

For the full video interview see MeetTheBossTV.