Campaigning to curb supermarket power


The major supermarket chains have announced numerous environmental initiatives. Tesco announced a Community Plan including an Environment Fund of £100 million in 2006 and have continued to announce further plans since then, including carbon labelling of their products. At the start of 2012, Tesco abandoned their carbon-labelling scheme, which had been running since 2006 in partnership with the Carbon Trust.

Despite the many benefits of environmental initiatives, it remains the case that Tesco's size and growth, its numerous unsustainable products, and its impact on independent retailers stop it from being a truly green company. The same is true of the other large chains. With larger numbers of car-based hypermarkets and food being sourced from around the world, and trucked around the UK, these companies continue to damage the environment.

Please see the Friends of the Earth's briefing "If Tesco really wants to be green," and press release on the environment fund and waste. George Monbiot in his book "Turn up the Heat" suggests that the increasing trend of individuals and companies showing their green credentials, is often green-wash hiding real environmental costs.

Some of supermarkets' environmental costs include:

  •  The food industry is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore has a massive part to play in tackling climate change. The bulk of these emissions come from food production. Tesco and the other supermarkets must do more to make sure that their production lines are sustainable - this needs to be prioritised above paying farmers the lowest possible prices. Research by Friends of the Earth has shown that low prices have reduced farmers' ability to produce food in environmentally friendly ways. This needs to stop.

  • Fewer local farmers and shops mean both customers and goods need to be transported further. This means more pollution from cars, as people drive further to shop, and more pollution from aircraft and lorries, as food is transported from around the world. Indeed Tesco's business could be seen as one of the drivers behind the rise in UK CO2 emissions. More needs to be done to support local, seasonal produce - something that independent shops and supermarkets are well suited to. 

  • Tesco's store sizes means they are some of the most energy-inefficient buildings in the retail sector. A 2002 Sheffield Hallam University study found that despite the new stock, large superstores are the most energy inefficient buildings in the sector. It would take more than 60 corner shops and greengrocers to match the carbon dioxide emissions from one average sized superstore. Although they are taking steps to increase efficiency, their commitment to building yet more stores means that these savings will be cancelled out.

  • Tesco also encourages shoppers to travel by car. One in 10 car journeys in the UK are now to buy food. Work for DEFRA shows that the distance travelled by car for food shopping has steadily risen by between 6-11% a year. Research for DEFRA also found that car use for food shopping results in costs to society of more than £3.5 billion per year from traffic emissions, noise, accidents and congestion. Tesco has been massively expanding into "Extra" format hypermarkets, which are particularly geared towards car-based shopping.

  • Tesco boasts about its progress on reducing waste and how it is following a market trend to introduce degradable plastic bags. But grocery packaging still makes up roughly a quarter of household waste, and the UK's biggest supermarkets distribute billions of plastic bags, which end up in landfill. Even degradable bags do not help, as they will still predominantly go to landfill sites where the lack of sunlight and oxygen will hinder rapid breakdown. To make a real difference the supermarkets need to stop handing out free bags altogether.

  • A large amount of food is still being wasted. Around 300000 tonnes of food waste per year is generated by supermarkets.

  • Biofuels - Tesco is a major shareholder in and customer of Greenway Biofuels Limited, a UK company promising customers climate-friendly, sustainable biofuels from UK rapeseed oil. The organisation BiofuelWatch has, however, undertaken research which reveals that Greenergy's biofuels contain increasing amounts of palm oil, soy and sugar cane. All three are crops linked to large-scale rainforest destruction, massive greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and peat and forest fires, and in some instances to human rights abuses.