UK Supermarkets Told to 'Green Up Their Act'


Photo credit: yisris via Flickr/Creative Commons
Organic food and the Slow Food Movement are big parts of the green food experience in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the supermarkets that help supply the movement are lagging behind, according to the government. The Herald Scotland reports that the government, academics, and regional NGOs are ratcheting up the pressure on supermarkets to do a better job providing green food options for their shoppers.

Despite increasing awareness and demand from consumers for environmentally friendly, low-carbon food options, three of the U.K.'s largest supermarkets are turning in failing grades when it comes to putting green food on their shelves. What's the deal?


Part of the problem: Consumers want more clearly marked green produce, and some grocers aren't heeding the call. Photo credit: Visentico / Sento/Creative Commons
Tesco, Morrisons 'lagging behind;' Asda 'regressing'
Attempts by these three have come up short, according to research by independent agency Consumer Focus; the "big improvements" they had expected since its last study, in 2007, have only been shown by Sainsbury's and M&S.; Meanwhile, all three were described as "lagging behind," and "regressing" in Asda's case.

The Scottish government said the supermarkets had "no room for complacency," and the numbers bear that out. 73 percent of grocery sales in the U.K. come from supermarkets like these, and 70 percent of those customers want their supermarkets to do more to help them make informed environmental choices about the food they buy. The demand is there, but, according to Friends of the Earth Scotland's Chief Executive, Duncan McLaren, the results don't equal that demand, and it's time to get serious about getting it done.

"We welcome the genuine commitments shown by some retailers - such as improving the energy efficiency of their stores, and taking steps to cut packaging. But all the supermarkets must be brought into line. The UK Government must introduce tougher measures to make them source low-carbon and environmentally friendly products and treat their suppliers fairly - starting with a new watchdog to oversee the supermarkets."

Current supermarket performance: Fair to middlin
Market leader Tesco was singled out for poor signage of sustainable food options in their stores, and Asda received the most consistently low marks; with just 59 percent of its produce grown in the UK and the proportion of organic food dropping from 18 percent in 2007 down to the current 11 percent, it has the most ground to make up to catch its competitors.

On the greener side of things, Sainsbury's and M&S; received praise for their "excellent" stocking of seasonal foods, and a strong commitment to engaging with their customers about sustainable foods. According to a Scottish government spokesperson: "While it's encouraging that some UK supermarkets are doing more to make it easier for customers to shop green there is no room for complacency."

Does the economic downturn deserve any blame?
Consumer Focus found that the economic downturn has led many supermarkets to focus on the value of its products; even so, sustainability issues are still an important consideration for shoppers. 54 percent of consumers said they bought more environmentally responsible products now compared to two years ago; just three percent said they bought less.

So, if all (or even most of) the blame can't go to the economy, then what's the problem? It may just be the inertia of the companies themselves. Lucy Yates, a sustainability expert for Consumer Focus, said, "Our survey shows that when a grocer has the will to respond to consumer pressure on green issues, this works through to the shop floor."

Further, Dr. Ian Moffatt, director of the sustainable development program at Stirling University, said: "The report shows that there is still more to be done by both consumers and businesses to contribute in a significant way to make development sustainable."

So, keep demanding greener foods, U.K. shoppers; if the government, environmental groups, and academics have anything to say about it, it could be as easy as voting with your pounds.

More about green foods in the U.K.
Slow Food Comes to the UK , Finally
UK Food Chain Starts Bike Deliveries
UK Grocery Chain Sainsbury's to Start Turning Wasted Food Into Electricity
Waitrose Supermarket to Sell Only British Milk

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