Our In Conversation Series returns in 2022 with Niall O’Connor, Group Managing Director at Aldi Ireland. Niall became Group Managing Director two years ago, but his career at Aldi spans for over 20 years. He was worked as Operations Director, Group Buying Director, Managing Director before taking on his current role. Over to Niall…
What was your background previously?
Before joining Aldi, I spent my college years in London studying chemistry. However, it was a retail placement during my college work that made me realise working with people and in business was my passion, and this is where my career in retail began.
My responsibilities include working with Aldi’s dedicated Corporate Responsibility team to develop and oversee our sustainability initiatives, reducing our carbon emissions, developing our sourcing strategies and ensuring we work sustainably in all of the communities we serve. Nothing would be possible without our dedicated 4,650 staff across our 149 Irish stores, distribution and office teams.
How has the sustainability evolved at your company?
Sustainability is at the heart of every single thing we do at Aldi, not just what customers see on our shelves. Within our business it is a significant driver of strategy, not just here in Ireland but across our operations internationally. This support has ensured that we continue to make significant progress in this area which is vital to our continued success.
We’ve been carbon neutral since January 2019 and our entire store network is powered by 100% green electricity. In addition, we’ve committed to ambitious goals to reduce the amount of plastic and packaging used across our stores and, to date, we’ve removed more than 2,150 tonnes of plastic. To do this, we’ve introduced a number of market leading initiatives including becoming the first supermarket to roll out fully compostable steak trays, removing all black plastic from our core ranges and removing all single-use plastic straws. In recognition of our work here, Irish shoppers voted Aldi as the most sustainable supermarket in Ireland according to the Ireland RepTrak® Sustainability Index 2021.
We also support local communities through a number of initiatives. Our Community Grants programme sees staff in each store donating to local charities that they care about, and in 2021 we donated over €79,500 to local causes. Since the programme began in 2016, we’ve donated an amazing €450,000 to 850 charities across the country. In addition, we also support FoodCloud by donating surplus food to the charity, ensuring food is donated to those who need it most. Since beginning its partnership with FoodCloud in 2014, Aldi has donated over 2.35 million meals, delivering a saving of more than €3 million for the charity sector while also benefiting the environment saving an equivalent of 3.2M tonnes of CO2. We’re also a proud member of BITCI and we’ve achieved the Business Working Responsibly Mark.
On top of that, we continue to support a number of national charities including the Irish Cancer Society and WEEE Ireland.
How did you adapt your Sustainability plans during Covid-19? How did you support your key stakeholders during these difficult times?
Given the challenges many have faced over Covid-19, we consciously made sure to keep supporting our charity partners. When the impact of Covid-19 was felt hardest, we increased this support for both existing and new charity partners to ensure nobody was left behind.
In recognition of hardships faced by families, we announced a new partnership with Barnardos to help raise over €1 million for the charity to fund a broad range of its services. Supporting vulnerable children and families during the pandemic is of the utmost importance to us.
We also donated €50,000 to FoodCloud to assist with additional staff support as well as increasing food donations. We’re proud to say we became the first supermarkets to donate non-surplus food to the charity to help alleviate the huge pent-up demand for its services during Covid-19.
We donated 100,000 facemasks to Our Hospital Heroes and Age Action Charities in May 2020 when PPE was in shortage, and all Aldi stores sold an “Irish Nurses Thank You” flower bouquet, which generated €20,000 for Our Hospital Heroes.
In the early days of Covid-19, we recognised the hardships faced by many of our small and medium sized suppliers. As such, we reduced our payment terms, with payments processed and paid within five working days. This support was then extended for 2020 and all of 2021.
In recognition of the incredible effort and contribution our staff made throughout the extremely busy months at the start of the pandemic, we introduced a 10% bonus for staff between March and May 2020 given the massive undertaking in keeping the nation fed and shelves fully stocked.
What are the challenges you encounter in driving the sustainability agenda and how do you stay inspired?
The climate agenda has become the number one priority for Ireland, and we recognise the importance in being leaders in pushing this agenda forward. The onus is on us all to protect the environment for future generations, which has come to the forefront following COP26 and the Government’s Climate Action Plan, which was recently signed into law.
This is an ambitious plan, which is what we thrive on here at Aldi, and we are committed to doing our piece to ensure we meet these targets. This challenge is what drives me to find more sustainable ways of living, working and delivering our award winning grocery offer in the most sustainable ways.
What is your biggest accomplishment or learning so far?
My biggest accomplishment to date is playing my part in Aldi’s success over the past 20 years in bringing a revolution to the grocery sector in Ireland. It is my privilege to have the opportunity to lead the fantastic team here in Ireland as we continue providing the best quality and lowest prices to customers across the country.
My biggest learning is to keep the end goal in mind. For example, our remaining plastic reduction pledges are to be achieved by 2025 and every day we’re making progress towards them, no matter how small, from removing shelf packaging on products to using innovative materials developed in partnership with our fantastic suppliers.
In the long-term, I know we’ll look back with pride on every step we achieved along the way.
What is your motto in life?
Support those who support you. Whether it’s my fantastic family that support me in everything I do, or Aldi as a business supporting local communities, I firmly believe we should support those who support us. That way, we can all benefit from the great work we’re all doing to make the world a better place.
What would a perfect day entail for you?
While I thoroughly enjoy my days working with Aldi, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead such a hard-working and focused team, my perfect day is spent with my family. We have all been reminded over the last two years not to take things for granted, so spending quality time together as a family is more important than ever to me now.
How does BITCI help you in your sustainability journey?
BITCI offers fantastic support and guidance when it comes to CSR and sustainability. In addition, BITCI has connected us with like-minded organisations and businesses that are serious about sustainability and making the world a better place, and we’re proud to be on the collective journey.
Having access to best practice and trusted advisers has been instrumental in our work to push towards a more sustainable and inclusive economy. As the push to reduce climate change continues, we’re grateful to have BITCI on our side.