Supermarket Sustainability – How Do They Score?

sustainable shopping

I thought I’d create a new section to this blog to highlight some of the good work being done by companies in the UK and around the world to reduce their carbon footprints and thus lessen their impact on the environment.

I not only believe that business has a large part to play in driving change, I also think that when companies do make significant improvements that they should be recognised. If consumers show their support by getting behind companies that have bold yet effective green policies, then it sends a message out that being green is beneficial not only in terms of reduced costs but also in terms of sales.

In this first post I will look at the big 6 supermarket chains Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Waitrose and The Co-operative. I will try and figure out just what each of them is doing to try and move towards a more sustainable future.

Executive Summary

Click on a logo below to jump straight to my write-up on that supermarket

Tesco B Could set their goals a little closer to the present day rather than 2050
Asda C+ Doing well on transport emissions but need to look at the bigger picture
Sainsburys B+ Good work on packaging and water usage but better reporting is needed
Morrisons C- Too much waste still going to landfill and carbon reductions nothing to shout about
Waitrose B+ Good policy on renewable energy but too much waste going to landfill
The Co-operative A+ Have made larger and faster CO2 reductions and world class in renewables

First and foremost I must say just how difficult it has been to try and compare and contrast the figures presented by each supermarket; they use several different measures for their carbon emissions and because of this it is hard to say which is doing the most for the environment.

These measures include:

  1. Absolute carbon emissions – as in the total number of tonnes of CO2e emitted by the company.
  2. Emissions per unit of selling floor space – this is either per square feet or square metres.
  3. Emissions per £m in sales – that is the total emissions per £1million in sales taken.
  4. Emissions per source – figures for the stores, transport, energy usage, wastage, refrigeration.

Regardless of the different measures taken by each supermarket, I will at least try to give you a good overview of their actions and my own opinions on them.

Tesco

As the biggest player in the market you would naturally expect their impact on the environment to be the largest and you’d be right. In the year 2010/2011 they:

  • had a global carbon footprint of 5.44 million tonnes of CO2e
  • of which 2.49 million tonnes was due to UK operations
  • had a carbon footprint of 53.26 kgCO2e per square foot of selling space
  • emitted 655,669 tonnes of CO2e through transport at 0.141 kgCO2e per case of goods delivered

The good points to take away from Tesco’s Corporate Responsibility report for 2011 are:

  • they wish to become a zero carbon business by 2050 without using offsets; they will generate their own renewable energy instead
  • absolute CO2e emissions in the UK are down by 5% on last year largely because of an unyielding desire to reduce the loss of refrigerator gases to the atmosphere
  • a saving of 18.5 million road miles (and 25,000 tonnes of CO2e) in their distribution thanks to the use of the rail network and double decker trailers – this has helped to reduce their kgCO2e per case of goods delivered by 6% since last year and over 20% since 2006/7
  • 525 everyday products now have carbon labelling which means consumers are better informed of the environmental impact of each purchase
  • they gave away green Clubcard points worth over £10million to shoppers who acted in a green manner (by using their own bags or using Tesco recycling centre for example)
  • since 2009, no waste from their UK stores has been sent directly to landfill

GreenSteve’s Opinion on Tesco

B

I must say that I really do admire their goal of becoming a carbon neutral company but I think their timeline is little slow. Giving themselves until 2050 is a slight cop out and I think that an ambitious end date of 2025 would make their green credentials a lot stronger.

I also applaud them for their carbon labelling scheme which I think is very important as an educational tool to consumers. I doubt many people realise that more CO2e is emitted through milk production than the weight of the milk itself (800g of CO2e per pint – a pint weighs around 568g). Hopefully this labelling will make people think twice before pouring milk down the sink.

The green Clubcard points are probably more of a marketing gimmick than a game changer – I question how many people who recycle at Tesco centres would not have recycled elsewhere should they not exist; I think most would and so the additional benefit is quite low.

Overall I think that Tesco, as the UK largest retailer, should be more of a green leader than it appears to be right now. I’ll give it credit it for its actions so far but it must do better.

Asda

Part of Walmart behemoth, Asda has been producing company-wide carbon footprints ever since 2007 while working to reduce it since 2005. In 2010 they:

  • had a carbon footprint of 1.15 million tonnes CO2e
  • which translates to around 61.9 tonnes CO2e per £1million in sales

And the good takeaways include:

  • total absolute emissions down by 4.2% on 2009 levels
  • 148,892 fewer tonnes of CO2e emitted in 2010 then 2007 – that’s an 11.4% reduction
  • 21.84% reduction in refrigerator gas emissions
  • Transport emissions down by 42% on 2005

GreenSteve’s Opinion on Asda

C+

I like the clarity of Asda’s reporting and of their sustainability targets going forward but I am underwhelmed by their approach to renewable energy and generating it themselves. In fact the word renewable does not appear a single time in their target document.

Asda has already reduced new store carbon emissions by 42% and aim to make this 60% by 2015 which is very admirable but it has no plans for zero carbon stores such as those already in existence – again this comes back to renewables because zero carbon is not possible without a source of renewable energy powering the stores.

Their reduction in transport emissions is impressive.

So overall I’d say that Asda need to look further into ways to improve their green credentials as current the strategy has obvious limits.

Sainsbury’s

I don’t know about you but I always think of Sainsbury’s as a fairly ethical and sustainable company but does that appearance hold up in the face of scrutiny?

Between their 20 by 20 Sustainability Plan and their 2011 Corporate Responsibility Report, we can see that:

  • total emissions for stores is 856,046 tonnes of CO2e
  • this equates to 506 kg CO2e per square metre of store floor space

There are some good points that come to light such as:

  • an aim to reduce operational carbon emissions by 30% (absolute figure) and 65% (relative to store floor space) by 2020 compared with 2005. A target of 50% absolute savings by 2030 is also in place
  • own brand products to not contribute to deforestation by 2020
  • a 30% relative reduction in water consumption in existing stores compared to 2005/6 – the aim is a 50% reduction by 2012
  • own brand packaging to be reduced by half by 2020 compared to 2005
  • 11% reduction in packaging has already been achieved over the last 2 years
  • 12 million kg less packaging in the last year alone
  • Trialling of a Smart Grid system in one of the stores to try and reduce the strain on the National Grid during periods of intense demand through switching to an on-site biofuel generator.

GreenSteve’s Opinion on Sainsbury’s

B+

I see some really good things from Sainsbury’s which are a bit different to Tesco and Asda. I particularly like the approach to own brand product packaging and water use which show that they are thinking about the whole green spectrum and not just their carbon emissions.

The Smart Grid system is potentially a very exciting development because when the National Grid comes under strain from excessive demand, much of the extra electricity is produced from very dirty backup sources. If we can avoid switching these backups on then the overall energy mix of the UK will look a lot cleaner.

My main criticism is the lack of a company wide carbon figure. It seems that their reporting focuses mainly on the stores themselves rather than the depots and transportation required to continually restock these stores. I’d like to see a more complete picture of the company including all potential sources of emissions and waste.

Morrisons

A company that has grown noticeably over the last few years, Morrisons is now the 4th largest supermarket in the UK. Its 2011 Corporate Responsibility review tells us that:

  • their carbon footprint in 2010 was 1,417,376 tonnes CO2e
  • almost 35,000 tonnes of waste was sent to landfill in 2010/11
  • this means just 82% of store waste is recycled

But the good news is that:

  • their recycling rates is up from roughly 72% in 2006/7
  • their carbon footprint is down almost 12% since 2005
  • they too have a target of reducing their carbon footprint by 30% by 2020 against a 2005 baseline figure
  • LED lighting on chiller cabinets is expected to produce savings of 11,400 tonnes of CO2e per year
  • emissions of refrigeration gases is down 40% since 2005 thanks to a £100 million investment in cleaner replacement systems
  • they have fitted cleaner fridge cooling systems to more stores than any other supermarket

GreenSteve’s Opinion on Morrisons

C-

Morrisons have put fridge cooling at the heart of their effort to reduce their carbon footprint. With refrigerator gases being far more harmful to the environment than CO2 I can understand this approach and applaud them for it. Morrisons do fall short in other areas however and the amount of waste still going directly to landfill is concerning.

Morrisons, like Asda, do not have a clear policy on renewable sources of energy and the extent to which it is being investigated stretches only as far as producing a report into the savings that could be made by the dairy industry.

I am very keen on renewables so this lack of interest from Morrisons disappoints me.

They were the first supermarket to be awarded the Carbon Trust Standard but I think they could be doing a lot more to make positive changes.

Waitrose

Part of the John Lewis Partnership, Waitrose delivers what many would consider to be a higher standard of customer care but do they show the same care when it comes to the environment?

The John Lewis Corporate Social Responsibility Report for 2011 shows:

  • gross emissions attributed to Waitrose of 394,134 tonnes of CO2e
  • energy efficiency of 115.1 KWh per square foot of trading area in 2010/11 – slightly worse than 2009/10 (severe winter blamed)
  • refrigeration emissions down 20% on 2008/9
  • 16% of Waitrose waste still goes to landfill

The good things to come out of this report are:

  • around 97% of electricity used is from green sources of energy – although this is still from the grid itself
  • they want to bring refrigeration emissions down by 50% by the end of 2012/13
  • a 5.3% reduction in CO2e emissions on a normalised basis per £1 million sales

GreenSteve’s Opinion on Waitrose

B+

I have to admit to shopping at Waitrose quite often and I always assumed they would be one of the best performers when it comes to environmental issues. The one stain on their otherwise good report is the high levels of waste being sent to landfill but they are working on this and hope to reduce it to 5% by 2013.

I really like the fact that they buy around 97% of their electricity from green sources and that they are working on their own energy production methods.

The John Lewis Partnership as a whole aim to reduce their absolute carbon footprint by 15% by 2020/21 versus a 2010/11 baseline figure. Without separation of Waitrose as an independent entity within this goal, it is quite difficult to compare it fairly with those set by the other companies in this post.

The Co-operative Group

Specifically known for their ethical stance on almost all matters, I had to save the Co-op for last really. I couldn’t find reports for the food retail part of the business specifically but their group Sustainability Report of 2010 shows:

  • total gross* emissions in 2010 of 953,678 tonnes CO2e
  • total net* emissions in 2010 of 321,768 tonnes CO2e
  • total transport and distribution emissions of 150,024 tonnes CO2e

The positive side of the report shows:

  • total gross* emissions down 35% on 2006
  • total net* emissions down 68% on 2006
  • 98% of electricity from green sources, mainly wind and hydro technologies
  • green energy production on-site of 24,000MWh in 2010 – that’s 2.1% of total energy requirements
  • an additional 48MW of wind projects in the pipeline (either approved or in the process of getting approved)
  • refrigerator gas emissions down 58% on 2006 levels to 124,592 tonnes CO2e
  • total transport emissions down 16% on 2006 levels

*gross treats electricity from renewables the same as that from ‘brown’ sources while net treats electricity from renewables as zero carbon

GreenSteve’s Opinion on The Co-operative

A+

I have been a big fan of the Co-op and their values for many years so these findings come as no surprise. The gross figure for emissions is what we will use for comparison purposes and a 35% reduction since 2006 is quite astonishing.

Add to this their now almost complete reliance on zero carbon energy production and I believe that the Co-op should be a model to follow for the rest. The fact that they are also investing a great deal of money into their own green energy production only adds to this belief.

The Lessons Learnt Across The Board

Looking at all of the information above I have put together these 10 lessons based on the accomplishments and policies of one or more of the 6 supermarkets:

  1. Set really tough goals both in terms of carbon reduction and timeframes – stating a time almost 40 years in the future like Tesco did is a bit of a pointless exercise in my opinion.
  2. Create an industry standard measurement for emissions that allows comparison across the market – I think CO2e per square metre of selling space could be the figure to roll with.
  3. Follow Tesco’s lead on carbon labelling and give consumers more information about the impact a product has on the environment.
  4. Follow Sainsbury’s lead and reduce the weight of packaging used in own brand products.
  5. Commit to sending zero waste to landfill – recycle as much as possible and send the rest to energy from waste plants.
  6. Follow Sainsbury’s lead and reduce the amount of water used in stores.
  7. Buy electricity from green sources as Waitrose and Co-op do – driving up demand for renewables can only help in making them more commercially viable for suppliers.
  8. Follow The Co-op’s lead and start creating the means to produce electricity on company owned sites and land.
  9. Match Asda’s huge reduction in transportation emissions by using rail networks and double decker trailers where possible.
  10. Follow Morrison’s lead and invest heavily in cleaner refrigerator technologies to reduce leakage of dangerous gases into the atmosphere.

A Final Thought

Supermarkets have a privileged position of being able to communicate and thus educate the general public on a regular basis. They are also in a position to change consumer habits by choosing to put products with a low environmental impact on special offer instead of more polluting ones.

I think that they can have a huge impact on the amount of food waste produced in the UK each year with initiatives to help people become waste conscious shoppers. They can better inform people of the differences between ‘used by’ and ‘best before’ and give them ideas on how to cut down on what they throw away each week.

I would also like to suggest that supermarkets share information with each other in terms of how they are making their respective efficiency savings. Competitive rivalries should be put aside for the environmental cause although I fear that this is very unlikely as each looks to maintain any advantage they have.

In the end it comes down to the consumer to choose where he or she shops. The problem is that location and convenience often play a large role in where people shop and just because someone wants to shop in the Co-op, doesn’t meant they should drive 40 miles there and back to do so – common sense has to prevail but where a sensible choice can be made, you should try and stick to the supermarket(s) you think has the best eco credentials. For me this means shopping in Waitrose and The Co-op as much as possible.

Which supermarket do you shop at do environmental issues have any impact on your decision? Let me know in the comment section below.

Steve (152 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.


2 Responses to “Supermarket Sustainability – How Do They Score?”

  1. Sam
    October 28, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    Hi Steve, amazing website! keep it up! The green revolution is just around the corner!

    I was wondering if you knew of any small sustainable supermarket start ups in the UK?

    It is relatively well accepted that future economic growth will be driven by SMEs and I think that unless the big six change radically, small manuvarable SME’s will take their place (look at Walmart in the US currently).

    Their business models are flawed simply because they are too big.

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    Sam

    • October 29, 2013 at 10:36 AM

      Hi Sam and thanks for bring this up.

      Other than the growing list of community food co-ops (http://www.sustainweb.org/foodcoops/) I don’t know of any for-profit supermarket start-ups that are trying to challenge the big six. Actually, though, since I wrote this post almost 2 years ago, many of the companies listed here have embarked on a bit of a green revolution with new stores that are as environmentally friendly as possible. I wouldn’t even bash Walmart too much seeing as how they have installed more solar power capacity than any other non-energy company in the world.

      I do think that they are genuinely moving in the right direction faster than most other industries although food waste is still a huge issue as Tesco pointed out last week with their figures for bagged salad.

      Steve

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