Supermarkets need to take a fresh look at green choices

Despite well-publicised attempts to green up their act, supermarkets are still performing poorly when it comes to offering a sustainable way to shop.

This is the key finding of an authoritative report, Greening Supermarkets, published by the National Consumer Council this week.

The NCC put eight high street names to the test, looking at broad issues such as organic produce, food miles and the use of recycled and recyclable packaging as well as more specific indicators like the availability of sustainably-sourced fish and toilet rolls certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council.

Of the eight, Waitrose performed the best overall, warranting a B grade on an A to E scale.

According to the NCC it did well for selling Marine Stewardship Council certified fish, with helpful, informed counter staff, and with a good range of organic foods.

It had a good variety of in-season vegetables, but also let itself down with the highest number of airfreighted fruit, flying in apricots, strawberries and blueberries from New Zealand.

The big four – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – did not fare so well.

Sainsbury’s managed a C with the highest percentage of organic products and the widest range of MSC certified fish. It also scored points for using recycled paper in packaging, toilet rolls and kitchen towels.

Tesco and Asda both warranted a D with Tesco sourcing in-season vegetables from the UK but not doing enough to promote the fact. The report also claimed Tesco needs to raise its game on the fish front as it had only one MSC product out of over 150 products surveyed. On the plus side it has taken steps to cut plastic bag use and promote recycling.

Asda, meanwhile, was top for sourcing and promoting UK in-season vegetables, but has room for improvement across the indicators.

Morrisons also did well for UK-sourced seasonal vegetables, but let itself down by failing to promote them. It rated poorly in all other areas and received an E grade.

The other supermarkets under the NCC spotlight were Marks & Spencer’s with a C, the Co-op with a D and Somerfield with an E.

It is worth noting that the report is weighted towards what the supermarkets were doing to offer customers green choices, rather than efforts to make the corporation itself have a smaller footprint, so initiatives such as Tesco’s extensive investment in renewable energy at its stores carried little weight.

NCC Chairman, Lord Whitty, said: “We all need to understand that food is the typical household’s number one contributor to climate change. By throwing away ten billion carrier bags each year and transporting carrots from Egypt and strawberries from New Zealand, we hit the environment hard.

“But shoppers are increasingly keen to do their bit. Now, we make it clear how supermarkets could make greener choices easier for everybody.”

Dr Martin Gibson, programme director at Envirowise, an organisation set up to offer free advice to businesses wanting to improve their environmental performance, said that the report showed supermarkets were already making efforts to do just that.

“However, there is still much that can be done, particularly with regards to waste – which was one the categories graded lowest across the survey. We are currently working with major stores including ASDA, Marks & Spencer and Sainsburys to help them and their suppliers aim for a zero waste culture, particularly in areas such as packaging and product design.

“By drawing on our time and expertise, these businesses are turning what has been labelled in the press as ‘greenwash’ into practical action with benefits for the environment, the customer and the bottom line.”

The full report can be found on the NCC website.

Sam Bond

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