Supermarkets are big contributors of carbon emissions, single-use plastic and food waste, so how do they compare?

Plastic bottles 2

When it comes to the battle against climate change, supermarkets are at the forefront of the conflict. They are huge contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, plastics, and food waste because to their enormous scale and dominance in their respective industries. In addition, their continued existence is contingent on these problems being brought under control; having supply networks that are robust and trustworthy will be essential to their continued role as economic mainstays in the United Kingdom. Multiple challenges related to maintaining a sustainable environment confront supermarkets. To begin, their operations, which include the powering of their stores, freezers, delivery trucks, and depots, as well as the packing of their items and the disposal of their garbage.

And secondly, the things that they sell have significant negative effects on the environment, whether it be carbon emissions from transporting the products all over the world or issues such as deforestation and water consumption in the creation of the products. They also play a significant part in the process of swaying the opinions of customers as well as those of the businesses that provide them. What they stock, how it is labelled, and how much it costs are all factors that can make a difference.

It is essential, but difficult to ascertain, how their companies stack up against one another in relation to major environmental sustainability challenges. Because of this, we have combed over their yearly reports in great detail, analysed the data, and posed challenging questions in order to determine which grocery stores are the most environmentally conscious of them all as well as what additional steps need to be taken.

How we evaluate the environmental impact of supermarkets

Our ground-breaking study is the first of its kind because it compares businesses on a wide variety of sustainability parameters, including the stores’ first full years of required reports on their greenhouse gas emissions. Because the majority of supermarkets include these statistics in their yearly reports, we were able to obtain the most precise and directly comparable data possible by working closely with the supermarkets themselves in order to ensure that our comparisons were fair.

We employed intensity measurements for some of the crucial statistics in order to make it as fair as it could possibly be. For example, we measured greenhouse gas emissions per million pounds sterling of income, and we measured plastic use per 100,000 grocery pack sales. And in the same vein, we looked at the amount of food that was wasted not as an absolute quantity, but rather as a percentage of the food that was for sale. We compared the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the supermarkets throughout their complete operations, which included their stores, deliveries, warehouses, and other services. These emissions are directly under the supermarkets’ control.

Wider supply chain emissions can account for more than 90 percent of the total and are therefore of the utmost importance; yet, because none of the supermarkets currently report in depth on them, we were unable to include them in our analysis. It is important to keep in mind that these different retailers have different business models, which invariably have an effect on these comparisons – whether it be the online-only retailer Ocado, which has more emissions related to delivery, or the retailer Iceland, which uses more energy for its freezers.

We are relieved to learn that not a single supermarket in the UK dumps food waste, and that all of them have committed to reducing food waste by at least half by the year 2030. The majority of the extra food from Tesco and Ocado is redistributed for human use (for example, to food banks), whereas the majority of the surplus food from the other retailers is sent for anaerobic digestion (AD), where it is converted into biogas and compost. M&S also informed us that, since 2015, the company has given 34 million meals to charitable organisations. We requested that supermarkets provide the proportion of their total weight of food sales that is equivalent to the amount of waste food that is sent to AD. Ocado does best, at just 0.04 percent . Food waste at Aldi, Co-op, and Lidl is far greater than the industry average, coming in at roughly 1 percent of total food sales. At these other retailers, approximately 10 grammes of food are thrown away for every kilogramme of food that is purchased, whereas at Ocado, the figure is only 0.4 grammes.

What you can do to make a difference in the world

A good number of these problems would appear to be beyond the control of average consumers, but there are significant ways in which we can take action. All of your personal circumstances, such as where you shop, what you buy, how you get there, and what you do with the food after you get it home, have an effect. You are the only one who can determine which aspects of your household might benefit from the most beneficial and workable adjustments. The aisles of the supermarket present you with important decisions to make; here are some of our best recommendations:

It’s important to pay attention to the changing of the seasons since fruit and vegetables that are naturally available at that time of year are more likely to be grown locally without the use of a heated greenhouse. Try to find food that was cultivated in the UK and purchase it while it is at its peak quality. Buy them in quantity at this time because they are typically less expensive and then either preserve them or freeze them so that you can enjoy them throughout the year. Food that is out of season can be cultivated responsibly in warmer locations, but you should avoid purchasing any food that was air-freighted because the carbon impact of air travel is significant.

To avoid overspending on food and other supplies, it is important to create a meal plan and a shopping list before going grocery shopping. Do not give in to the temptation of deals offering two products for the price of one, especially if the items being offered are perishable, unless you are certain that you can either use them or freeze them. Buying in bulk will help cut down on the amount of packaging you use, but if you won’t be able to consume everything right away, split it out and freeze it. Keep in mind that you can still consume food even after the “best before” or “display until” date has passed; all you have to do is use your best judgement.

Shop “naked” to steer clear of unnecessary plastic packaging by purchasing loose, unpackaged food items. Bring your own reusable produce bags for fruits and vegetables, as well as jars or containers with lids in the event that local grocery store has refill stations for dry items such as pasta or cereal. Additionally, some stores will let you to fill your own container with deli items if you bring your own. Keep an eye out for paper and cardboard packaging that is simple to recycle, and select refillable products whenever possible; these are generally preferable from an environmental standpoint.

Be adaptable: A “flexitarian” diet is one that consists primarily of plant-based meals but yet allows for the consumption of some animal products. Because beef, lamb, and dairy products have the largest carbon footprints among the foods we eat, you should attempt reducing your consumption of red meat in favour of vegetables and pulses, which are typically less expensive, better for your health, and better for the environment. There is also a diverse selection of dairy substitutes, with oat milk and pea milk being among the options that are considered to be the most environmentally friendly. Learn more about the various alternatives to milk, as well as how to select the most sustainably caught seafood.

Choose an eco slot: Online deliveries can be a lower-carbon choice, and some supermarkets offer “eco” or “green” delivery slots, in which their drivers are already delivering in your region. If you want to take advantage of this option, you will need to find a supermarket that offers these slots. And despite the fact that you might realistically need to rely on your car for the weekly shop, if you happen to have a short shopping list, walking, cycling, or using public transportation will all help to cut not only your gasoline bills but also your carbon footprint. Walking, cycling, and public transportation all help to reduce your carbon footprint.

What grocery stores ought to be doing

In order to construct our greenest grocer league tables, we investigated three of the most pressing concerns about the environment’s long-term viability. However, this is just the beginning of the narrative; additional concerns that should be taken into account include the use of water, the destruction of forests, the creation of organic food, sustainable fish, and biodegradable cleaning products. These are generally located further down the supply chain, outside the purview of the direct operations of the supermarkets, and similar statistics can be difficult to locate. We believe that every supermarket should establish aggressive goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, both for their own operations and for the supply chain as a whole, along with specific actions to take in order to achieve these goals. In addition to this, they should get rid of any plastic that isn’t essential and work toward making their own brand of plastic as readily recyclable as possible while also labelling it as such. In addition, we would like to see an emphasis placed on food waste. It is just unacceptable that Aldi, Co-op, and Lidl have 24 times as much food waste proportional to their size as Ocado, for example. This is something that needs to be addressed.

Investigation into the packaging of major brands

Over the past few years, we have conducted research into the packaging of well-known brands of food. Our most recent examination into the packaging of food products, which took place in September 2020, focused on 89 of the most popular brands, such as Cadbury and Coca-Cola. Based on our research, we discovered that just slightly more than a third of these products had packaging that was entirely recyclable in household collections. And nearly four out of ten had no label that indicated whether or not it could be recycled. In addition, extremely comparable products came in packaging that varied greatly from one another. While the packaging of some companies can be recycled with relative ease, other businesses provide nearly comparable products that come in packaging that is extremely challenging to recycle.

What exactly is the United Kingdom Plastics Pact?

Since its inception in April 2018, the UK Plastics Pact has garnered the support of almost all of the major grocery store chains in the United Kingdom. The pact, which will be led by sustainability experts at WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), will bring together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain, as well as government agencies and non-governmental organisations in the United Kingdom in order to address the issue of plastic waste. More than 120 companies, including some of the most well-known names in the food and beverage industry, as well as producers, retailers, and companies that reprocess plastic, have committed to achieving a set of goals by the year 2025. These are the following: Redesigning, innovation, or finding other distribution models that allow for reuse can be used to do away with problematic or superfluous single-use plastic packaging. Reusable, recyclable, or compostable materials must comprise one hundred percent of all plastic packaging. Seventy percent of all plastic containers and packaging are successfully recycled or composted. The average amount of recycled material found in plastic packaging is thirty percent.

What measures is the government taking to combat the use of plastic?

In October of 2020, the government of the United Kingdom implemented a ban on the use of single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds. In addition, the government has announced its intention to implement a tax on plastic packaging that contains less than thirty percent recycled plastic beginning in April of 2022. But Which? is of the opinion that additional steps should be taken. Labeling items clearly as recyclables would make a significant difference. Before determining how to dispose of food product packaging, we know that 67 percent of Which? members either frequently or always seek for recycling information on the package. Because of this, we are advocating for recycling labels to be required on all supermarket packaging sold in the UK, regardless of whether the product is branded or not, so that customers are aware of what can and cannot be recycled, as well as the process for doing so.