I spent Friday at an event in Reading organised by the Sustainable Development Commission to explore the sustainable future of the retail sector. Easy to imagine that in the coming world of more expensive energy, increased transparency, tighter borders and tighter money, maybe there isn’t one, at least not in a form similar to that of today, but we were asked to think about radical possibilities.

SDC Commissioner Alan Knight – whose professional background is in the retail sector – opened the proceedings with an interesting presentation on the theme of ‘If the planet were a business’. Starting with a 5,000 year view of human development (including that still shocking exponential figure that there are more people currently alive than have ever died in the history of humankind) he then compressed that down to the 30-year life of the typical retail business. Growth was pretty steady for the first 28 years, but for the last two years the business growing at 38,000%.

As Alan observed, if this were a business, it would be bursting at the seams. The logistics people would be saying they couldn’t source enough stuff. The property and estates team would tell you they couldn’t get enough buildings and infrastructure. The customers would be complaining about poor service. Satisfaction levels would be falling. The Board would be suggesting that it would be better to slow things down.

But I was reminded by another participant of how ingrained the factors are which promote the existing retail (and consumption) culture. He’d been into an Asda in Hampshire where irons were being sold for less than £3 (toasters for £6). Clearly they are being sold at less than production and transport cost – let alone their full environmental cost.  Hampshire County Council had in 1978 opposed the development of the superstore site (done then by the Co-op) but were over-ruled by the then Secretary of State, Peter Shore, who decided that the local population needed access to cheap goods. Well, they’ve certainly got them. 30 years ago, maybe there was some excuse, although many of the environmental arguments were well understood even then. But stores are still playing the same games with local politicians – sometimes with slightly less success – although all the excuses have long gone.

Alan Knight picked this up in his presentations and remarks during the day. On the one hand a sustainable business would make sure that the price of goods reflected its cost. But supermarkets and big box stores routinely sell goods below cost to get people through the door (to buy other things). Often these are dramatically one-off short run offers on things which are irresistibly ‘good value’ (i.e. absurdly cheap) – but unlikely to be used more than once.

The work of the SDC on sustainable consumption, including its excellent and influential report ‘I will if you will’, published last year, can be found on its website.