The Climate’s guide to sustainability in modern grocery shopping.
We all do it every week — we write up a grocery list, grab our reusable shopping bags and head out to the local supermarket to buy supplies. Battling our way through these ginormous metal buildings with their fluorescent lights and slightly too cool temperatures to come away with items shipped in from all over the world.
You’ve probably wondered all along just how sustainable this process could be. You may even have started to buy locally grown or seasonal produce to cut down on the travel impact, but what you may not have thought about is the businesses themselves.
Those of us who avoid animal products, for example, may still be buying from a supermarket that sells it — or worse, have been accused of animal abuse. Take Tesco, Lidl and Sainsbury’s who have previously been called out on the poor treatment of chickens from farms that stock their shelves.
There are also the big bad companies that pose as small, ethical brands such as Method and Ecover cleaning products who were bought out by SC Johnson, a company known to test on animals and currently with no set sustainability targets to reduce its environmental impact. Let’s not forget Cauldron who provide plant-based alternatives (and actually announced they’re now a fully vegan brand just last month), as well as Quorn, are both owned by Phillippines-based conglomerate, Monde Nissin — a company known for its use of unsustainable palm oil.
While it can be easy enough to avoid products, what’s not so easy is avoiding supermarkets altogether. The food industry is dominated by them and the convenience, low prices and variety of products make them almost impossible to stop using.
There is plenty of information out there on the supermarkets themselves, though, to help you make more educated decisions. For example, you can check out sites such as The Good Shopping Guide, an independent authority that judges and compares companies on a long list of ethical factors and provides them with a rating.
Despite there being supermarkets that do better or worse in certain categories, there’s no denying that these huge businesses take their toll on the environment. While Tesco, Sainsbury’s, The Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have committed to halving their emissions by 2030, currently these businesses use a lot of energy to run refrigerators and power lights and that’s before we even get into the astronomical amount of food waste and value chains they operate along.
We also can’t forget the horrifying amount of plastic that supermarkets produce. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace, you’re looking at 1.2 billion plastic bags for fruit and vegetables, 1.1 single-use plastic bags and 958 million ‘bags for life’ every year.
To dispel some of the doom and gloom and to stop you from panicking about where you’ll get your food from if not supermarkets, here are some of their pledges which we can only hope they stick to:
Tesco has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2035 and also added that they are “[w]orking with suppliers and partners to deliver our goal to be net zero from farm to fork by 2050.”
Sainsbury’s also plans to be net zero in their own operations by 2035 while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 in line with a “well below 2℃ scenario”.
Asda has improved on this by pledging a net zero end-to-end business model by 2040 as well as lowering direct greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2025.
Meanwhile, Aldi has been carbon neutral since January 2019 and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025.
There are, of course, alternatives to supermarkets springing up all the time, with businesses such as Oddbox reducing food waste by providing deliveries of fresh produce to homes across the country. You may also be wondering about meal prep delivery services as a more sustainable alternative.
While one of the biggest concerns for the meal prep delivery industry is definitely excess packaging, a study by the University of Michigan found that supermarket meals carried an extra 2kg of carbon dioxide per meal compared to meal prep kits.
As with most environmental issues, the answer to the supermarket industry isn’t an easy one. Buying power is most definitely the consumer’s best bet in these circumstances — buy local and seasonal and if you can, buy direct from farms or smaller local businesses too. Avoid food in plastic packaging and most importantly, don’t forget to bring your own shopping bags!