How green are supermarkets, and are they getting greener?
Production, packaging and transport of food makes a huge impact on the environment - the food you purchase accounts for one third of your total environmental impact if you come from an average British household. Most of this food comes from supermarkets, not generally thought of as eco-friendly organisations. But as climate change becomes bigger news every day, the major supermarket chains have seen an opportunity to improve their reputations with some high-profile green initiatives. Are supermarkets really going green?
Supermarket green report card
In 2006 the national consumer council (NCC) carried out a survey of the major UK food retailers, looking mainly at how they help their customers to make green choices. They looked at food transport, waste and farming, giving an overall score of A-E. The highest score went to Waitrose (B), Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer got Cs, Tesco, Asda and Co-op got Ds, while Somerfield and Morrisons did the worst, scoring an overall E.
They found that most supermarkets stocked plenty of British food (with the associated reduction in food miles) but were not good at promoting seasonal and local produce. Plastic bags were a big issue - with little promotion of alternatives, although ‘bags for life' were generally available. The report called for supermarkets to push customers into changing everyday habits so that they were in line with their environmental concerns.
How can supermarkets go green?
Green policies to look out for include making stores energy efficient, limiting carbon emissions from food transport, reducing packaging and making any packaging recyclable, recycled or degradable, and sourcing fish and wood from sustainable sources.
The other way a supermarket can go green is to change buying habits - giving customers as much information as possible about where their food comes from, promoting seasonal and local food, and encouraging (forcing?) people to use alternatives to plastic bags. While apparently responding to a demand for more environmentally-friendly products, they don't want to scare customers off or make them feel like they have less choice.
M&S lead the way on sustainable fishing and degradable packaging
In early 2007, M&S announced ‘Plan A', an initiative to spend 200 million pounds on reducing their environmental impact over the next five years. The plan seems to have gone down well with environmentalists, who say it is more comprehensive than other retailers.
Unfortunately there seem to no plans to stop using excessive amounts of packaging (putting fruit and veg in trays and wrapping them in plastic). They are working on sustainable and degradable packaging - their sandwich packs already originate from sustainable forests, and much of the plastic used is made from corn starch and is compostable. They also plan to put aeroplane symbols on all food imported by air.
M&S is the best British supermarket when it comes to sustainable sourcing of fish. They have also reduced carbon dioxide emissions from their stores over the last few years and have ambitious plans to become carbon neutral and stop sending waste to landfill by 2012.
Tesco aiming to encourage carbon-friendly habits
Tesco followed hot on the heels of M&S by announcing some environmental initiatives in early 2007. The most publicised was their plan to add ‘carbon footprint' labels to their food. They are also planning to add aeroplane labels to air-freighted food.
The idea of labelling food as ‘flown' has been criticised. When you consider the livelihood of farmers that rely on imports to the UK, the issue suddenly becomes quite complex. Is it better to grow food in heated greenhouses in Europe than to fly it in from Africa?
Tesco now offer Clubcard points (is this really a big incentive?) to customers that do not take plastic bags. A more effective policy may have been their TV adverts featuring celebrities using plastic bag alternatives.
Sainsbury's promoting seasonal food and plastic bag alternatives
The most famous thing to come out of Sainsbury's in recent months is the designer ‘I'm not a plastic bag' bag which proved to be extremely desirable and quickly sold out, showing that green is currently very much on trend. Jamie Oliver is also a good advert for them, with some TV adverts focusing on seasonal food.
They also claim to be improving energy efficiency, and energy consumption per metre of store floor space has dropped in recent years, although their total carbon emissions have remained stable. However, unlike Tesco's and M&S they seem to be relying on the fact they already had a slightly greener reputation, and didn't jump on the ‘green initiative' bandwagon of early 2007.
Supermarkets are getting greener but is it enough?
While the publicised green initiatives of the major supermarkets are a step in the right direction, they stop short of dramatic changes which might scare off customers by reducing choice or convenience. It seems unlikely that supermarkets will stop providing plastic bags or stocking out-of-season fruit and veg. It would be good to see some hard evidence of improvements - reduced food miles and energy consumption for example - rather than listening to ‘plans' and ‘aims' which currently form the bulk of their environmental policies.
Due to the number of comments on this page/topic we have moved further discussion to the forum.
"Consumers should get off their back sides and make more informative choices about what they buy and from where it comes from. Do you need strawberries at Christmas - no. Do you need to buy ready-made foods in 3 layers of packaging - no. Supermarkets and the government have a large role to play in reducing our effect on the environment through our shopping habits but we as consumers should do our bit as well."
"they could be greener!"
"supermarkets need o be greener"
"Supermarkets need to green up their act."
"Asda have got rid of plastic carrier bags1 you either have to take your own, or but the environmental bags from asda."
"its a very good website"
"supermarkets should be greener and use biodegradable bags"
"and grammar is not spelt with an 'e' but 'sentance' is..."
"When you start a sentance with I it must be a capital I not a little i! "
"i think we should start now so are kids can have a nicer live.."
"I think people ought to learn to spell in their comments! But I agree, supermarkets are not green enough."
"i totally agree"
"supermarket are doing nothing but pollutng the earth!"
"i think supermarkets have got to ge there act together!"
"Supermarkets should do more"
"supermarkets are damaging the environment and causing the ozone layer to allow sun rays on to the surface of the earth"