When it comes to making #Just1Change to help fight climate change, a big one can be deciding where to do your weekly shop.
As part of our ongoing climate series, we asked all the major supermarkets to look at their environmental practices and make changes where possible.
We also gave them questions from you, our readers, based on what you wanted to know about their plans for a cleaner future.
It’s our hope these vast companies recognise it’s ‘Time to Shelve’ certain practices which worsen plastic pollution, increase energy usage or contribute to food waste – and to bring forward positive schemes – many of which have already been trialled or promised in future.
Answers to these questions varied across the board, but here we’ll be looking at two of the largest supermarket chains operating in the UK today: Sainsbury’s and Tesco.
Both companies are making encouraging noises about future climate targets, but whether they are taking action quickly enough is less clear. Tesco has been hailed for its work on a new reuse scheme and reducing plastic but, as the UK’s biggest supermarket – ahead of Sainsbury’s – has been told it has a ‘huge responsibility’ to do more.
On just under ten things we asked Sainsbury’s to shelve, they had so far only done one – significantly lower than many other supermarkets, including Tesco. But they also appear to be making progress on nearly all of them and have won praise for a new campaign on sustainable diets and reducing plastic.
Yet neither company was willing to say they would cut ties with toxic suppliers – or seemed willing to help reduce meat and dairy consumption: a major contributor to the climate crisis. They can definitely do more – every little helps, you might say.
On that theme, we decided to focus on plastic, energy and waste and see if there were some minor changes that could be made to help the environment.
The problem with plastic
We asked all the supermarkets to make pledges surrounding plastic packaging. Specifically, removing plastic bags from tills, removing multipack shrink wrap and fruit and veg packaging as well as swapping plastic bottles for glass.
Tesco does not offer single use plastic bags and will replace its recycled plastic bags for life when they are worn out. Its deliveries are also bag free and shoppers can bring soft plastics back to the store for recycling.
On packaging around fruit and veg, it believes some is necessary to keep the food fresh, but swapped small plastic bags for a paper alternative last year – and will shortly replace that with a net one.
It will not be changing to glass milk bottles, which are heavier to transport than recyclable plastic – negatively impacting their would-be carbon footprint.
In January 2020, Tesco replaced plastic-wrapped tinned multipacks with plastic-free multibuys, to take 350 tonnes of plastic from the environment.
It is also trialling a 10-store ‘Loop’ scheme to make packaging reusable, which has won praise from Greenpeace – an organisation which is actively lobbying it to do better environmentally.
Time to Shelve: The 10 things you asked supermarkets to do
Consider replacing plastic bags at till with paper ones
Remove all plastic packaging on fresh fruit and veg
Consider Swapping plastic milk bottles for glass
Stop selling multipacks in plastic shrinkwrap
Only use energy efficient light bulbs
Reduce usage outside of shop hours
Swap open refridgeration units for closed ones
Turn down the aircon
More options to buy food individually rather than multipacks
Reduce food waste
Sainsbury’s appeared less proactive on plastic but has still taken steps forward.
Like Tesco, it offers customers the chance to replace worn out reusable plastic bags but will not switch to paper carriers.
‘Paper bags require more energy and water to manufacture, resulting in higher carbon impact (and) are also heavier in weight compared to plastic and not always considered for reuse’, the company explained.
Like its rival, Sainsbury’s will keep some plastic packaging on fruit and veg for freshness but is moving towards loose items, which customers can put in a reusable, recyclable 30p bag made from recycled bottles, or in a container of their own.
On milk bottles, the supermarket says it is exploring moving some milk into cartons but did not specifically address the possibility of moving to glass bottles.
It says it is ‘looking into’ how to reduce packaging from multipacks but is rolling out a recycling scheme allowing customers to bring back flexible plastic packaging to stores, following a trial in the north east.
Nina Schrank, Greenpeace UK’s head of plastics, praised Sainsbury’s ‘market leading’ commitment to cut plastic by 50% by 2025.
But ‘how they meet this commitment will be crucial’, she cautioned.
‘We’d like to see Sainsbury’s eliminate plastic from its fruit and vegetables faster, and use their huge buying power to pressure brands and suppliers to change their ways.
‘A target to make 25% of their packaging reusable and refillable should be a part of meeting their 2025 pledge.’
Turning her attention to Tesco, she said the UK’s biggest supermarket – ‘and therefore the biggest producer of plastic’ has a huge responsibility to lead the way.
Time to Shelve: What the supermarkets need to do now
As part of Time To Shelve, Metro.co.uk is asking all nine supermarkets to pledge to continue shelving any bad practices that impact our fight against climate change. We also ask that they take our readers – their customers – comments seriously and work harder towards finding ways to make shopping a greener experience.
Calling on the company to seize the opportunity, Ms Jones: ‘Whilst there has been some progress, it in no way meets the scale of the challenge.
‘The innovative reuse and refill partnership with Loop is a promising venture, but only if it starts to be scaled up and rolled out nationally so that it starts to displace the throwaway packaging on their shelves.’
What about energy?
The question of electricity use is inexplicably tied to the climate debate.
Producing energy is one of the biggest causes of fossil fuel emissions worldwide, so reducing our dependence on it – or switching to renewable forms of it – is crucial.
As part of our campaign we wanted to know how the supermarket chains handled their electricity needs. In this category, both Tesco and Sainsbury’s appeared to be making progress.
Things like reducing the electricity usage outside shop hours and turning down the aircon seem like no-brainers. Similarly, how about only using energy efficient bulbs in shops and swapping open refrigeration units for closed ones?
Tesco only use efficient LED lighting on all its shop floors – something Sainsbury’s promises to have matched by the end of the year.
Both stores also adjust their lighting levels depending on the time of day (with Sainsbury’s using automatic sensors) and they have ‘Aerofoil’ fridge systems, which reduces energy consumption and direct cold air back where it is needed.
Tesco’s stores are powered by renewable energy with some featuring solar panels that feed green energy back to the grid.
Sainsbury’s has no air conditioning in stores and instead redirects cold and warm air from fridges, while Tesco says its AC units only activate on the warmest days of the year.
Dealing with food waste
Tesco and Sainsbury’s produce some 55,837 and 36,388 tonnes of surplus food each, but much of it is donated to charity, staff, animals, or to environmentally questionable anaerobic digestion plants.
Tesco alone gave more than 20,000 tonnes to charity and has now removed best before dates on over 180 different fruit and vegetables products.
Sainsbury’s claims to have ‘not sent any waste to landfill since 2013’ and says it does not send any food waste to incineration, instead donating much of it to more than 2,250 food donations partnerships.
It is committed to reducing food waste by 50 per cent across its value chain by 2030.
What goes on in both supermarkets’ wider supply chains, however, is less clear.
Jessica Sinclair Taylor, head of policy at Feedback, a food and environment organisation, recognised that Tesco ‘is working hard on reducing its food waste, including looking closely at waste in its supply chain and making changes like dropping pointless “best before” labels on fresh fruit and veg.’
But, she criticised a distant 2050 target for wider action, branding another 29 years ‘far off to make the contribution Tesco owes the public on climate change.’
Questions from readers
Our readers – you – wanted to know several things from the supermarkets about what they were doing to help the climate.
Things like considering reuse schemes and refill stations in stores or implementing a seasonal fruit and veg section and limiting the amount of meat and dairy in stock to try to encourage people to consume more sustainably.
Tesco believes its trial of a reusable packaging is a better and more scaleable solution than refill stations.
Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, says it is preparing for a larger deposit return scheme rollout with a take-back recycling service for bottles and cans at several stores.
On refill stations, it says it is looking into a collaboration project with the UK Research & Innovation.
But on the possibility of a seasonable fruit and vegetable section, neither store could say they were doing more than encouraging customers to buy them – though Sainsbury’s says it has a process to ensure ‘wonky veg’, are put to good use.
Meat and dairy
They also had little to say about nudging customers away from meat and dairy.
Tesco highlighted its large plant-based meat alternative range but – like Sainsbury’s – had nothing to add on how to reduce consumption.
Sainsbury’s does appear to be slightly ahead on the issue, with two-and-a-half times as many plant-based products and a campaign on ‘Helping Everyone Eat Better’, through a diet that would be more environmentally friendly.
It also ran a ‘Great Big Fruit and Veg Challenge’ and claims to be ‘working to reduce the environmental impact of animal proteins, in partnership with our suppliers and producers’ – though details of how were not forthcoming.
Ms Taylor, Feedback’s head of policy, said: ‘Sainsbury’s new campaign to make healthy and sustainable diets accessible to everyone is an important step in the right direction: experimenting with different incentives like loyalty points and new recipes with less meat to help customers make more sustainable choices.
‘But their targets on cutting the carbon impact of the products they sell isn’t yet ambitious enough, compared to the scale of the climate crisis.’
Meanwhile, Tesco previously trialled a carbon footprint labelling system and found it had little impact on customers and was difficult to understand.
Sainsbury’s however, are looking into the idea.
More broadly, Sainsbury’s – who are sponsoring COP26, is pledging to reach net zero no later than 2040, alongside promises to significantly reduce plastic packaging and food waste sooner.
Meanwhile, Tesco Group CEO, Ken Murphy, said last month that new targets, including aiming for group-wide net zero target by 2035, would ‘bring an unprecedented level of transparency to our emissions footprint and will allow us to identify and tackle those areas where urgent transformational change is needed.’
Yet Anna Jones, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, told us: ‘As our biggest supermarket, Tesco should be leading the way but its net zero announcement just pushes healthy forests and a stable climate further out of reach.
‘It doesn’t even acknowledge the need to radically cut emissions immediately, having already failed its original target of 2020 for zero deforestation, but expects praise for promising action by 2050 – 29 years away.’
She continued: ‘Sainsburys does at least cite the need to cut supply chain emissions in the next 10 years, but it’s still not enough. And, like Tesco, they still source from forest destroyers.’
You can see how all the supermarkets fared in our Time to Shelve campaign in the graphic at the top of this article – and read more about how the individual supermarket brands fared against each other in the box underneath.
If you’re going to make Just1Change to help fix the global climate crisis, it could start with changing which supermarket you spend your money in.
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