Thursday, 22 September 2011

Supermarkets, which are the greenest?

The number of supermarkets in the UK has risen dramatically over the last few decades. Its not just the numbers that have risen - supermarkets have aggressively expanded into a wide range of non-food markets including clothing, electrical goods, books, CDs, DVDs, financial services, pharmacy products. The list keeps on growing.

At the same time, the number of independent shops, grocers, butchers, florists and corner shops has been in gradual decline as they struggle to compete with the sheer size and prices offered by the large supermarkets.

The current picture is one of a rapidly expanding supermarket sector coupled with the demise of local and small shops.

Whereas it was the small food retailers that were previously threatened by supermarket expansion, a plethora of smaller shops are now facing increased competition as the supermarkets diversify their product range.

The dominance of the supermarkets is also centred around four main companies; Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys and Morrisons. Most people in the UK now shop at one of these big four supermarkets. According to the Independent (6th June 2011), Tesco has a 31% market share, Morrisons 12%, Sainsbury's 16% and Asda 17%.

Supermarket dominance is important not just from a local economy perspective but also from an ecological standpoint. That is because the big four supermarkets often pursue business models which are inherently unsustainable and damaging to the environment. Whilst they try to mask this with pseudo-green marketing campaigns, underneath the facade it is apparent that their true motive is profit.

For example, cheap food is often flown in from around the globe clocking up a huge carbon footprint whilst cutting out local producers. Palm oil in many of the supermarket products such as biscuits, sweets, confectionaries, margarines, breads, crisps and bars of soap often comes from rainforest areas that have been cleared for palm oil plantations. Cheap labour and sweatshops in third world countries are used to produce bargain clothes. Landfill sites, streets and the countryside are littered with plastic bags given away free. These are just a few examples of the long list of ecologically damaging and unfair practices that the supermarkets pursue.

The problem, however, is that in the real world profit-driven monopolies seldom change their policies in the face of a largely apathetic or uninformed general public who are seeking to reduce their outgoings in response to the economic downturn. That is why it is important to expose unsustainable and unfair practices amongst the largest supermarkets and publicise them widely, so that consumers can make more informed choices and see exactly what they are buying.

So, which are the greenest supermarkets? And how do you measure green? There is no single measure that can be used to establish green credentials but typically a range of measures would include its stated ethical policy, commitment to protecting the environment, its policies and procedure for reducing carbon emissions and pollution, labelling of products, treatment of employees including those in other countries, the way it deals with its suppliers, packaging and use of plastic bags, and its contributions towards charities and local causes. In combination, these provide an indication of how green a supermarket is.

Ethical Consumer conducted one such exercise in 2011, measuring 19 supermarkets against a range of environmental and social indicators. It found that the Co-operative was the greenest supermarket followed by Marks and Spencer. From their fishing policies to palm oil use to renewable energy, both companies scored well with a genuine commitment to protecting the environment.

Languishing at the bottom of the table was Britains biggest supermarket Tesco. Its policies and lack of concern for the environment were illustrated in a Guardian article about the Tesco 'flights for lights' promotion, offering air miles in exchange for low-energy light bulbs, which it said was like giving away a pack of Benson and Hedges with every Nicorette patch.

Tesco, every little hurts.

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