Greenwash at the greengrocers as food retailers fail to ‘walk talk’

by 20 Jan, 2020

Last week, Tortoise Media launched its Responsibility 100 Index, which tracks the difference between sustainability ‘talk’ and ‘walk’ at the UK’s biggest firms. Or, in other words, who might be up to some corporate ‘greenwash‘.

One of the lowest scoring groups in the index was UK food retailers. Online supermarket Ocado ranked worst in 89th place, while high street stalwarts Morrison and Sainsbury’s came in at 87 and 65 respectively. Meanwhile, take-away group Just Eat came in at 84.

This places the sector shoulder-to-shoulder with fossil fuel firms like Royal Dutch Shell (79th) and mining group Glencore (68th) – companies leading the global climate crisis.

Gaps between walk and talk

This big gap between ‘walk’ and ‘talk’ is perhaps surprising for a sector that has seemingly been at the forefront of green initiatives in recent years.

Consumers are increasingly making food choices that take account of environmental impacts, with an estimated 33.5% of us cutting our meat consumption. Many food retailers have scurried to capitalise on this, with sales of vegan products soaring at companies like KFC, Zizzi and Gregg’s.

Meanwhile, other retailers have gone further than the nationwide plastic bag tax and cut packaging on some of their food items. Others have even embraced wonky veg and attempted to slash food waste.

Green or greenwash?

The results of the Tortoise Index, though, suggest that public facing efforts to go green may not be all they seem at some food retailers. Indeed, digging into a few policies reveals big discrepancies between marketing and real-world environmental impacts.

On the Ocado website, for example, the firm states that its ‘Environment Pillar Goal‘ is to become the UK’s ‘most environmentally-friendly supermarket’. A little further reading, though, reveals that while it has decreased its emissions per 100,000 orders, Ocado’s greenhouse gas emissions almost doubled between 2012 and 2018.

Tesco, which ranked highest out of the supermarkets at 50th on the Tortoise Index, also had discrepancies between its sustainability claims and its actions.

Tortoise found that in 2018, 27 of Tesco’s major own-label suppliers reported wasting 681 million kg of food. This compared with the 53.1 million kg of waste that Tesco reported from its UK operations over the same period.

Not just the food giants

And it’s not just the corporate giants possibly up to some greenwash. In 2018, Ethical Consumer magazine released a report on the sustainability of UK chain restaurants, ranking them on their actions on the environment, people and politics.

Zizzi and Pizza Hut were two of the lowest-ranked, for markers such as impact on climate change and organic products, as well as human factors such as responsible marketing. Both extensively advertise environmentally-friendly vegan options on their menu.

Even those chains that came out on top, like Mexican restaurant Wahaca and All Bar One, lost points for environmental reporting and supply chain management.

Impact of grocery greenwash

In the UK, we spend 17.4% of our household income on food. This compares to around 12.2% in the EU and 9.7% in the US. As such a large part of our national expenditure, the actions and policies of food retailers have a big impact.

As we know, food and agriculture is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 23% of global human-generated greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other types of land use.

In London alone, food and drink accounts for 10% of London’s total consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions. And so, our food consumption has a big impact outside of the high streets we buy it on.

Can I dodge the greenwash?

Thankfully, there are some UK high street food chains that do ‘walk the talk’. These include ‘natural’ fast food restaurant Leon, which is a founding member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), a group working to accelerate changes towards a climate accountable hospitality sector.

Other high street chains rated highly under the SRA ‘Food Made Good’ sustainability rating system include Yo Sushi for its sustainable fishing standard and Wagamama (under the TRG group) for its energy saving programme.

Increased accountability in the food sector are steps forward, while indices like Tortoise’s can help consumers to see who is really living up to their promises. The onus must be on companies to behave well and governments and regulators to enforce that behaviour, however we as consumers can support these efforts by making informed choices about where we spend our money on food.


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About the author

About the author

Phoebe Davis

Phoebe is a freelance journalist who is passionate about reporting on the human impact of climate change. She is currently studying for her Masters in journalism at the University of Sheffield.