Operator profile: Tong Garden Centre

Tong Garden Centre’s people, culture and sustainability business partner Steph Harrison chats to us about how team education fuels the business’ award-winning approach to reducing its environmental impact.

Sustainability is a big part of running a business in 2024 and implementing an actionable plan could feel challenging. So when an organisation like Yorkshire Garden Centres (YGC Group), which operates Tong Garden Centre, is successfully tackling and finding solutions to important green issues like food waste with effective strategies, sharing success and best practice is valuable for our industry.

There’s no simple answer as such, but rather an action that kicked off Tong’s award-winning approach to tackling climate change. And Steph Harrison has seen first-hand the powerful impact of uniting and educating the team that will undoubtedly inspire others embarking on this journey.

“We were the first garden centre to design and accredit a course with The Carbon Literacy Project,” she explains. “The project is centred around ensuring you are giving your team the tools, resources and the motivation to make meaningful day to day changes so they understand what’s happening to our climate and how they can make a positive impact.

“The one-day course concludes with every person making two individual pledges, one to to reduce their carbon footprint and a group pledge; something they will do as part of a team.”

It’s these pledges, each with a quantifiable action, that have become the very fabric of YGC Group’s sustainability work. The project proves that you need commitment from your people if measurable changes are to be implemented.

“This was the first project we launched when I was appointed to my role two years ago,” Harrison says. “We knew we wanted sustainability to be at the heart of what we were doing as a business, and this course emphasises the importance of being accountable as individuals to reverse the impact we’re having on the climate. It’s not for one person to do, it’s within everybody’s job to put it at the heart of the business.”

The training
The scheme was implemented in May 2023, and, except for a break in training across the festive period to focus on one of the calendar’s busiest trading times, there’s been a steady flow of people sitting the eight-hour course.

“The morning session focuses on the science of climate change,” Harrison explains. “We look at what is actually happening, dispelling the myths of it being a ‘natural cycle’, when carbon levels are at their highest in 200 million years.

“We connect the science of climate change to home, so you can see how it’s affecting you. We brainstorm the ways climate change is affecting us personally, at home, in retail, in horticulture, around the Yorkshire area and the UK as a whole. That’s when everyone realises climate change is interconnected to every part of our lives.

“Then in the afternoon we think about how we can then actually reduce our impact on climate change. We look at what the Horticultural Trade Association and Garden Centre Association are doing; what other garden centres are doing. We then look at four areas of our business: retail, catering, play, and our admin processes, asking ourselves how do we reduce our environmental impact across each of them? That’s how these great pledges are created.”

The business's aim is to deliver this training to 80% of YGC Group’s workforce by December 2024, and the team is on track to meet this incredible milestone. By the time of going to print, Harrison says the business will be a Silver Accredited Carbon Literacy organisation.

Celebrating success
There were 212 active pledges when Harrison spoke with us, and the group is keen to make sure that the spotlight shines on team members every time they achieve them.

“To recognise the importance of our climate commitment, we have introduced a seventh value award to our existing employee reward programme,” she says. “We’ve added ‘climate and community' as a core value which means that when somebody achieves one of their pledges, we can recognise that success, share it across our internal news platforms and reward it with a pin badge.

The Carbon Literacy Project and its associated training has been well received by the team.

“You’re always a bit nervous going into a project like this,” Harrison notes, “but our values are at the heart of our business. We already knew that climate and community were so well discussed in the business, so we had that reassurance going into it. We’ve involved teams in case studies throughout the development of the course. They’ve been involved in discussions during it, but it has been amazing to just see everybody dive in. Not one person has done the course and not made a pledge.

“People are coming up with new signage ideas, people are reusing things; our visual merchandiser rethought the whole design of 2023’s Christmas grotto so materials weren’t wasted, for example.”

Important pledges that have been made from the catering team include reviewing wastage signage to optimise recycling efforts, making it easy to recycle different grades of plastic and launching a food waste champion group across YGC to align and share best practise. Other pledges from this team include introducing cleaning schedules to optimise air con systems and prevent breakdowns; offering seasonal sustainable menu items, which are low waste and produced from local produce; and training the team to reduce condiments placed on trays, giving out a requested amount to reduce unnecessary waste.

These are great examples of how YGC Group is addressing ways in which its team approaches every single work process, and it’s those incremental shifts that add up to huge, business-wide changes.

Planet Mark
Another way YGC Group is holding the magnifying glass up to its carbon use is by embarking on the journey to achieving a Planet Mark measurement and accreditation. The team currently dedicates a yearly focus to different causes; 2023 was the ‘year of food waste’. This helped drive the formation of the food waste best practice group (a pledge from the senior catering manager at Tong Garden Centre), and is helping create the blueprint for excellent food waste reduction processes that can be implemented across all the garden centre sites. Examples include saving bread loaf crust slices from being wasted, freezing them and using them to make stuffing for the entire festive season, creating specials made from unsold deli counter items and seeing where spare cake slices can be put to use in other bakes, like a trifle.

This year’s focus is on utilities, which is a huge concern for operators across the UK. One example of energy saving already in place are sensors in meeting rooms that turn the heating off when you leave.

“In 2023 we conducted an energy site audit at our largest site,” Harrison explains. “We’re creating a template for this, so centre managers can complete a bi-annual audit. They’ll look at things like optimising lighting. When we switch them on in the morning, how many unnecessary lights are turned on for three hours? Do our concessions know the same things we do about energy saving? Are they turning their air con off? It’s those small discussions that will amount to cultural change across the business.”

Harrison aims to see YGC Group attain its Planet Mark measurement by the end of 2024.

Sharing is caring
When asked what the biggest challenge is for a garden centre to begin work on improving its sustainability, Harrison says it’s simply knowing where to start.

“It can be daunting because it’s such a giant topic, and not knowing where to turn if you have a question is tough. Being involved with Planet Mark means if we have a question about sustainable sourcing, for example, they will work with you to find the answer. It’s great that so many garden centres are on this journey, you find you can just pick up the phone and call each other, asking how did Planet Mark work for you? What were the hurdles?

“Our industry is great at sharing knowledge so, whether you’re embarking on a climate strategy or are well progressed and already making a positive impact, we invite you to get in touch so we can all share our experience and learnings.”

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