The amount of carbon emissions, single-use plastic, and food waste produced by supermarkets is enormous; how does this compare to other industries?

Plastic bottles

When it comes to the battle against climate change, supermarkets are at the forefront of the conflict. They are major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, plastics, and food waste due to their enormous size and dominance in their respective industries.

In addition, their continued existence is contingent on these problems being brought under control; having supply chains that are robust and dependable 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, refrigerators, delivery vans, and depots, as well as the packaging of their products and the disposal of their waste. And secondly, the products that they sell have significant negative effects on the environment, whether it be carbon emissions from shipping the products all over the world or issues such as deforestation and water use in the production 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 supply 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 key environmental sustainability issues.

Because of this, we have combed through their annual 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.

Both Lidl and Waitrose share the top spot in our overall ranking of the most environmentally friendly supermarkets. It’s possible that Lidl is best known for its prices, but it appears that the same incredibly efficient business model that helps keep those prices low also helps make it the greenest of the major UK supermarkets.

Its carbon emissions are lower than almost all of the others, and it has a very aggressive goal of reaching net zero in the near future. It is one of the companies with one of the highest proportions of its own-brand plastic that is recyclable in household collections, and it produces fewer quantities of plastic relative to the volume of items it sells than the majority of its competitors.

On the other hand, its percentage of wasted food places it near the bottom of the table. In addition to having a relatively high score for greenhouse gas emissions and food waste, Waitrose also had a very good performance when it came to the use of plastic.

They are the undeniable leaders of the pack in the grocery store when they work together. According to our findings, Iceland is the country that performs the worst in terms of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This could be because of its emphasis on frozen foods, which call for refrigeration that consumes a lot of energy. In addition to that, it utilises the greatest quantity of plastic in comparison to the total number of items sold. On the other hand, it does a decent job of minimising food waste, which is a positive aspect.

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 criteria, including the shops’ first full years of required reports on their greenhouse gas emissions.

Because the majority of supermarkets include these statistics in their annual reports, we were able to obtain the most accurate and directly comparable data possible by working closely with the supermarkets themselves in order to ensure that our comparisons were fair.

We used intensity measures for some of the key data in order to make it as fair as it could possibly be. For example, we measured greenhouse gas emissions per million pounds sterling of revenue, 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 total, but rather as a percentage of the food that was for sale. We compared the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the supermarkets throughout their entire 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, making them of the utmost significance; however, because none of the supermarkets currently report in depth on these, 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 examined the differences and similarities between operational emissions, also known as “Scope 1 and 2” in the business world. These are the ones that can be reduced by businesses with the least amount of effort if they use energy in a more efficient manner and switch to fuels that have a lower carbon footprint and are renewable.

We were informed by Aldi, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, and Tesco that they all run their stores on 100 percent renewable energy. Our research on green energy shows that some renewable energy tariffs are more environmentally friendly than others, which is commendable in terms of supporting a greener energy market. As a result, we compared the amount of carbon dioxide emissions by using the national average emissions factor for the grid, which was reported by the supermarkets themselves. This was done on a per million pounds of revenue basis.

All of the supermarkets that we polled have set a date for when they hope to achieve net zero, which indicates that they are working toward a time when they will be able to remove the same amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as they release.

The emissions intensity of Iceland is almost four times that of the countries with the lowest emissions (Aldi and Lidl). That means that the same amount of money spent in Iceland will result in four times the amount of emissions as the same amount of money spent in any of the other discounters.

Even though supermarkets don’t report emissions from their supply chains in their entirety (what are known as Scope 3 emissions), they do plan to cut those emissions.

Controlling emissions throughout the supply chain is more difficult and requires the collaboration of a worldwide network of producers, manufacturers, and distributors.

The plans of all of the supermarkets include making all of their plastic packaging either reusable, recyclable, or compostable by the latest year of 2025. The remaining six percent of Co-op own-brand plastic that can be recycled can be done so in-store. This accounts for 94% of the plastic’s weight. There is still work to be done for Ocado, as less than forty percent of the company’s own-brand plastic is recyclable at the curbside.

We were informed by M&S that their goal was to make all of their food packaging recyclable by the end of this year.

Because reducing the amount of plastic that is used is preferable to recycling it in terms of its impact on the environment, we investigated the amount of plastic that is produced by supermarkets each year as a proportion of the number of items that are sold. According to our research, Iceland has the highest percentage of products made from plastic, while Waitrose has the lowest. We discovered that purchasing a typical shopping basket of twenty items at Iceland could result in seventy-three percent more plastic packaging than purchasing the same twenty items at Waitrose.

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 surplus food from Tesco and Ocado is redistributed for human consumption (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 report the percentage 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%. Food waste at Aldi, Co-op, and Lidl is significantly higher than the industry average, coming in at around 1% of total food sales. At these other stores, 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 might 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 once you get it home, have an effect. You are the only one who can determine which aspects of your household would 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 because 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 grown in the UK and purchase it when it is at its peak quality. Buy them in bulk 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 grown sustainably in warmer climates, but you should avoid purchasing any food that was air-freighted because the carbon footprint 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 items 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 can help cut down on the amount of packaging you use, but if you won’t be able to consume everything right away, portion 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 your grocery store offers refill stations for dry goods such as pasta or cereal. Additionally, some stores will allow 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 foods but still 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 try 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 option, and some supermarkets offer “eco” or “green” delivery slots, in which their drivers are already delivering in your area. 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 create our greenest grocer league tables, we investigated three of the most pressing concerns regarding the environment’s long-term viability. However, this is just the beginning of the story; other concerns that should be taken into account include the use of water, the destruction of forests, the production 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 comparable data 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 necessary and work toward making their own brand of plastic as widely recyclable as possible while also labelling it as such. In addition, we would like to see a focus placed on food waste. It is simply 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 groceries. Our most recent investigation into the packaging of grocery 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 only slightly more than a third of these products had packaging that was fully recyclable in household collections.

And nearly four out of ten had no label that indicated whether or not it could be recycled. In addition, very similar products came in packaging that varied greatly from one another. While the packaging of some brands can be recycled with relative ease, other brands offer nearly identical 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 manufacturers, retailers, and companies that reprocess plastic, have committed to achieving a set of goals by the year 2025.

Among these are the following: Do away with problematic or superfluous single-use plastic packaging by rethinking, innovating, or developing alternative delivery models that involve reuse. It is required that all plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable, or compostable in its entirety. About seventy percent of plastic packaging is successfully recycled or composted. All plastic packaging contains, on average, thirty percent recycled material.

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 intends to levy 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 deciding how to dispose of grocery packaging, we know that 67% of Which? members either frequently or always look for recycling information on the packaging.