Is the supermarket price war turning into an ethical battlefield?
Earlier this year I interviewed formidable food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart who is not one to mince his words when voicing his thoughts on supermarket supply chain transparency - or rather, the lack of it.
He is a ferocious critic of how the big food retailers operate when it comes to reporting on certain types of data, such as mass rejection of edible crops at farm level because they fail to meet cosmetic standards. The really meaty data that could help us all make informed judgements about wasteful food practices down the supply chain just isn't there - it may be being measured, but it is not being shouted about ... perhaps understandably.
Asked what levers could effectively force supermarkets to open up their supply chains to greater scrutiny, Stuart told me that ultimately competition will be the real game-changer. The point at which supermarkets prick up their ears, he said, is when they learn that one of their competitors has gone one step further for 'the greater good'.
"When we finally get one of the big supermarkets to report in a transparent way, that will provide a best practice gold standard for the industry ... and there will be a race to catch up with that best practice," he predicted.
The starting gun for that race may just have been fired. In October Sainsbury's effectively called for a war on ethical values with its rival Tesco by mounting a £150,000 Judicial Review legal challenge over adverts from Tesco that claimed cheaper own brand goods.
The legal challenge, launched after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) brushed aside Sainsbury's attempts to block such ads, is rooted in the retailer's desire to forge a greater sense of trust with customers and fight for their rights to make shopping decisions based on all relevant factors including ethics, provenance and price.
Sainsbury's main beef is its claim that the Tesco advertising campaign is misleading consumers because it fails to point out that many of Sainsbury's own label products have superior ethical or provenance standards. It's a claim that is reportedly being supported by evidence from various accreditation bodies including Fairtrade, the RSPCA's Freedom Food initiative and the Marine Stewardship Council.
And Sainsbury's might well be onto something here. According to independent consumer research conducted on behalf of the retailer, 86% of those expressing an opinion said they thought supermarket price comparisons should clearly state whether they take ethical production standards into consideration when matching prices. The same survey showed that 84% of customers say how and where food is produced are important factors in their buying decisions.
According to Sainsbury's own commercial director Mike Coupe, consumers now want to be able to let their values guide them when making purchasing decisions, and for that to happen there needs to be a level playing field in terms of reporting on such values through visual aids such as product labelling and price promises.
It remains to be seen how Tesco will respond to this. The retailer is still smarting from having its knuckles rapped by the ASA over a "misleading" campaign in response to the horsemeat scandal that suggested the problem affected "the whole food industry".
What is becoming increasingly clear is that the major food retailers are being judged now every step of the way when it comes to transparency and values. It only takes one retailer to embrace this call for honesty and turn it into brand differentiator for competitive gain. Has Sainsbury's got a head start on the rest of the pack?maxine perella