As we all try to lower our carbon footprint, business has a role to play, too. That’s especially true of the retailers where we buy things. At supermarkets we’ve become used to purchasing virtually any kind of fruit or vegetable at any time of the year, often without giving a thought as to its country of origin (although it’s displayed). The truth is, we’ve become spoilt.
Supermarkets are also among the greatest packaging offenders, not only with the billions of plastic carrier bags we take home annually (no matter if they’re made from partially recycled materials), but also how the items themselves are wrapped, often to an excessive degree.
As the movement towards a greener Britain grows, what are the supermarkets doing to help?
The National Consumer Council has come up with a series of recommendations for supermarkets, ranging from the promotion and sourcing of seasonal UK produce (which cuts down on the transportation miles of those strawberries grown in Chile, for example) to offering incentives to re-use carrier bags to stocking more energy-saving bulbs, especially those that don’t cost much.
Prior to these recommendations, although several chains have made promises, none received a top mark in any category, although both Morrison’s and Tesco were taking a lead on low-cost bulbs, while Asda, Somerfield and the Co-op had made strides with seasonal UK produce.
What They’re Promising
The big chains constantly come out with new goals and strategies, but few have matched the promise by Marks & Spencer to be carbon neutral by 2012, a statement that drew praise from Greenpeace. Tesco has vowed to reduce CO2 emissions overall from its operations by 30% before 2009 and ensure its products have their carbon footprint prominently labelled.
Sainsbury’s has had a few days where they’ve given away the re-usable bags for life, in the hope shoppers will use them regularly, while Asda has trialled bag-free checkouts (in other words, you need to bring your own bag), and some chains are moving towards using electric vehicles where possible, thus cutting fuel emissions drastically.
Most of the chains have also made promises regarding packaging. Sainsbury’s for instance, announced in 2006 that it would cut the amount of plastic packaging for its ready meals and organic food.
How They Can Reach Their Goals
Perhaps the biggest single factor to help push a carbon reduction by supermarkets can come from shoppers. The more that people insist on less packaging will mean they’ll have to reduce it. The more customers bringing their own bags means fewer plastic carriers. The more people request locally sourced items, the more the chains will carry them, whether it’s Waitrose or Asda (and it’s worth noting that it was Asda which achieved the most sustainable product of the year in 2006 for its fish fingers).
Rising energy costs can also play a part in the policies of the chains. Buying locally cuts those transport costs which are an integral factor in the price we pay.
Although no chain, not even Waitrose, has yet to achieve full marks in anything, the grades do continue to improve, and if they keep their promises of moving towards carbon neutrality, supermarkets can show themselves to be leaders in the fight to lower carbon footprints. We might have less choice of items, which will disappoint many, but it’s a small price to pay.