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The GreenBiz Interview

Walgreens Boots Alliance exec talks plastic, packaging and COVID-19

Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility Richard Ellis chats about the CSR agenda for the giant drugstore and retail operation, which employs more than 450,000 people in more than 25 countries.

Richard Ellis sits in an office

Courtesy of Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Walgreens is a fixture in the United States. About 78 percent of the U.S. population lived within five miles of a Walgreens or Duane Reade store as of August, according to the company. And the company has even more properties under the parent organization, Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA).

WBA employs more than 450,000 people in more than 25 countries and during the fiscal year that ended in August, it had sales that added up to $139.5 billion.

I recently spoke with Richard Ellis, vice president of corporate social responsibility (CSR) at WBA, via Zoom. At the time of our conversation in early February, one of the most pressing items on Ellis’ priority list was releasing WBA’s 2020 CSR report and tooting the company’s horn. 

"Given all of the other things that companies need to communicate and want to talk about, we have perhaps missed a few tricks in the past in terms of the way in which we have told our people about what we have been doing, what we have been achieving," Ellis said.

He noted that the virtual release event had the potential to reach the 450,000 people that the company employs, much more than was typical at in-person releases in the before times. Ellis said he hoped the event would help those in attendance "feel really proud of the company that they work for."

During our conversation, we also discussed Ellis’ long-term CSR priorities, the company’s packaging goals and its partnership with Loop.

Below is our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Deonna Anderson: I want to start with a level-setting question. Before doing research for this interview, I did not realize how big Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) is. You have retailers in the U.K. with Boots and Walgreens and Duane Reade in the U.S. and your wholesale business. With all of that in mind, how do you set your sustainability goals, and how these entities work together, if they do at all, to achieve your goals?

Richard Ellis: In some respects, it goes back 20 years. Twenty years ago, I joined the Boots business when it was just a U.K. business. I joined Boots because it had come bottom in the first "Companies That Count" survey that an organization called Business in the Community had put together. And the company felt that that was wrong. So I spent probably four years putting together a program and a structure and a process that enabled Boots to become in the top three in the U.K.

We then merged with Alliance UniChem, a European-based retailer and wholesaler. They quite liked the process that existed for Boots, so it was adopted by all of the Alliance UniChem companies that became the Alliance Boots business. When the Alliance Boots business then moved with Walgreens, [it] did not have a process, so they picked up and copied what Alliance Boots was doing. In a sense, the process has been 20 years in evolution rather than Walgreens, Boots and Alliance coming together and then the company searching for something to do. 

If you go back 15 years, and you look at the first CSR report, then there are certain elements of it that have not changed in terms of the auditing, in terms of the following of a process that is laid down by the Global Reporting Initiative, etc. This agenda has been at the heart of the various iterations of the company. And now Walgreens Boots Alliance, employing over 400,000 people, it is a major company, and clearly this is an important agenda for any international business.

Anderson: I wanted to talk through some of WBA’s sustainability ambitions. One of those is reducing plastics in Boots-owned brand packaging, in line with the UK Plastics Pact 2025. How are you all doing that? How is it going so far?

Ellis: When the Plastics Pact came along, it was formulating and putting in place a series of targets to capitalize upon work that we were already doing. So, when the Plastics Pact came out it was not something that was completely new to us. However, having a program [meant] there were targets we had to set up and start measuring and doing all these sorts of things.

It is not one big thing but it is just a series of all of the actions that we take as a company to try to remove plastic from all of the things that we do and to try and then reuse what plastic we have in some way, shape or form.

And basically, everything that has got plastic in it, we are looking and seeing how we can remove it. And that means that we have to collaborate with our suppliers and we have to educate our people internally in terms of the circular economy and how we recycle things. One of the things that we do is we backhaul all of the rubbish from the stores. A lorry [a large motor truck] makes a delivery to a store and it collects all of the waste from that particular store and it brings that waste back to a central recycling center, which is on the Nottingham side of the Boots business. This enables us to then segregate all of the different waste and then to recycle and then resell, reuse, all of those sorts of things.

For argument's sake, Christmas is an important time for Boots so they have lots of Christmas gifts, and this year we reduced the amount of plastic packaging that there was and other packaging by 270 tons. It is about the people in our marketing department understanding that perhaps it is not all that glitters is gold. In other words, they are removing some of the packaging to make the product more sustainable than perhaps using the packaging to make a product look slightly better. If you go into our distribution centers, there are seven different-colored waste bins and those waste bins enable us to segregate plastic. 

It is not one big thing but it is just a series of all of the actions that we take as a company to try to remove plastic from all of the things that we do and to try and then reuse what plastic we have in some way, shape or form. 

Anderson: One of WBA’s other sustainability efforts is related to rethinking consumption and waste management and trying to promote a circular economy. That reminded me of Walgreens' partnership with Loop to sell products in reusable containers. How would you describe that partnership as fitting into WBA's goals around packaging?

Ellis: It is one of those initiatives that we are looking at because we are trying to learn all of the time. Loop has very much done in partnership with Kroger, who we have a collaboration with. I think the idea that you can buy refillable contents is something that interests us greatly. One of the things that we are experimenting with is people bringing in shampoo bottles and being able to refill them with the same product. Now, one of the problems that we have got is that because shampoo is a liquid, how do we improve the kind of lock and load where you twist the [top] or you affix the bottle so that you can refill it, so that it does not go everywhere, create a mess and cause lots of waste?

If you look at the distribution centers in America, there is a project called Beyond 34 because no American city recycles more than 34 percent of the waste that it produces. Across our distribution center network, we have got that up to 98 percent, and that is all about reusing the packaging, reusing the totes, reusing the boxes, working with suppliers.

This is all the circular economy in practice. And I think the big issue is that it is about collaboration. From our point of view, the work that we do with Unilever, with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), with Johnson & Johnson in trying to manage all of these issues shows that the big international businesses have woken up to the challenges, which exist and realized that they are not going to solve them on their own.

Anderson: It is kind of impossible to solve them all alone as one company because the problem is huge. 

I read a recap of a Reuters event where you spoke, and you mentioned that working together with other companies and through your supply chain will be necessary to increase climate action after COVID-19. How else has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your work at Walgreens Boots Alliance or the approach you feel your company should take moving forward with taking climate action?

Ellis: I think COVID has forced businesses to look very carefully at the way that they operate. And people like myself who have been working from home would never have believed that we could work for a year without, for argument's sake, me traveling to America. I used to spend half my time in Chicago and other points, but in the past year, I have not been once. But using Microsoft Teams, I have been able to keep in touch with all of the people that work for me and all of those other departments that I have engagement with. And I would never have believed that it would be possible to keep the agenda moving forward, but the technology has really come into play and has helped a great deal. 

I think we are just coming to terms with how COVID-19 will change the businesses that we operate. I think that what we will see within the retail business is that there will be much, much more online shopping. I think people have, shall we say, graduated to online shopping. And I think a lot of people, because they have been in lockdown, because they have been worried about contracting the COVID virus, what they have done is they have battled with their tablets and they have actually gotten used to online shopping. And so, that, I think, is going to have a big role to play in the way that we operate as a business.

Climate change will not be reversible in the same way that COVID will be — hopefully — by a vaccine.

I can see that we will learn lessons and we will start to think about how we trade and how we operate. I think lots of retailers are closing outlets because people are finding alternative ways of shopping. And I think that COVID has acted as a catalyst and has really got people thinking differently about the way that they operate. And I think businesses like ours are having to really sit up and take notice and start to change their philosophies and the way in which they operate. And I think that the impact of COVID in terms of it is the first real crisis that has impacted the whole world since the end of the Second World War, and I think people can see that as climate change starts to take effect [that] climate change will be a much worse impact than COVID. And it will not be cured by a vaccine. 

If you look at Phoenix, last year Phoenix [broke the record for days with] temperatures above 100 degrees. You cannot live under those conditions. And if the number continues to rise, then there will be a huge migration of people. Similarly, people will not [be able to] live in California where the forest fires are or in Florida where Hurricane Alley is. All of those things are starting to make people aware of climate change and how climate change will impact all of us, and that climate change will not be reversible in the same way that COVID will be, hopefully, by a vaccine. 

Anderson: I want to switch gears a bit. Are there any lessons in the corporate social responsibility report that we have not talked about that you feel are important lessons for GreenBiz readers?

Ellis: As you read through our report, it is littered with examples of how we have worked with different people, with different organizations, how we have worked by sharing best practice across our businesses, the fact that we are operating in 26 countries, and that we can learn from each other.

The rules and regulations that exist in Europe are different to America, and what can we learn from that? Why is that? How can we create a better, more sustainable business because we are sharing that best practice, because we work collaboratively internally as well as externally?

And I think that is what comes through within the report in terms of how do we create healthier communities, how do we create a healthier environment, how do we create a healthier workplace? What do we do to make our products more sustainable? And all of those things are happening because we are trying to innovate but we are also trying to learn from others who have greater expertise or who want to work with us.

Anderson: That reminds me of one of my last questions, which is about Walgreens welcoming a new CEO soon, Roz Brewer. How do you anticipate working together with her to continue pushing forward WBA's social responsibility efforts?

Ellis: I am very much looking forward to working with her from what I have seen of Starbucks in terms of their commitment to fair trade with all of their coffee products, in terms of their packaging, and what is in the public domain about what Starbucks has done. There are very similar parallels between ourselves and Starbucks. I am looking forward to learning some of the lessons that she might have picked up from Starbucks and bringing those to play in what we do. Equally, I'm looking forward to explaining to her all of the things that we have been doing over the past 20 years to try and make our business more sustainable.

Anderson: As you just mentioned, you have been in corporate social responsibility work for a while. What is your most important priority right now as the VP of corporate social responsibility at Walgreens Boots Alliance?

Ellis: In the long term, it is climate change, climate emissions. I really think that we have got to continue on our path. If you look at the report, it shows that we reduced our carbon footprint last year by 7.9 percent. And really, what we have got to do is to work with our suppliers — and I do not just mean the Unilevers of this world; I mean a lot of the small-to-medium-size firms — and impress upon them the need to reduce their carbon footprint. And what we have got to do is help them understand the things that we have done over the past 20 years, which have enabled us year on year to reduce our carbon footprint because it is better for the world and we are saving money for the company.

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