Please note: things move fast in the supermarket world, and this is not up to date. Several companies have sharpened up their ethics since I wrote this in 2009, and other have let things slide a but. I will endeavour to update it soon (early 2014).
Fairtrade: An ethical trading pioneer and the first supermarket to launch a Fairtrade certified own-brand product, Co-op have a stated aim to ‘mainstream’ Fairtrade. Their broad range of products includes Fairtrade wines and seasonal items such as Easter eggs.
Environment: A leader on sustainability not just among the supermarkets, but in business full stop. Almost 100% of electricity is renewable, and runs its own windfarms and uses micro generation. Committed to reducing packaging.
Animal welfare: All eggs sold are free range, and those used in products will be by 2010. Almost all chicken is free range or high welfare indoor-reared, and pigs will be the same by autumn 09.
Corporate behaviour: Scores 95% in the Business in the Community corporate social responsibility index. Part of the Co-operative group, which has ethical policies throughout and is of course co-operatively owned. The Co-op bought Somerfield in 2008, and the Somerfield brand will be re-branded and hopefully brought in line on the ethics front.
Fairtrade: Has been a leader in the Fairtrade department, and has many hard to find Fairtrade items such as ice cream, jams, biscuits.
Environment: Performed joint worst with Lidl on over-packaging, but has commitments to seasonality and local sourcing where possible. Probably the best range of organic products on sale in the UK and the only supermarket with stated targets on organics. Rated joint first for sustainable fish by the MCS, and has thought-out policies on unusual things like palm oil or fair trade for UK farmers.
Animal welfare: Joined M+S as a 100% free range egg supermarket in 2000, and award winning welfare standards on chicken and pork. Broad range of organic meats, meaning healthier animals.
Corporate behaviour: As part of the John Lewis partnership, Waitrose is founded on co-operative principles, rather than profit alone. Exemplary reporting through it’s biannual Corporate Responsibility Report. (2008 edition here)
Marks and Spencer
Fairtrade: Launched a five-year ethical strategy in Plan A, which will increase Fairtrade commitments. Has launched organic cotton ranges and seeks to increase organics, which is much better for the health of cotton pickers.
Environment: Under plan A, M+S aims to be carbon neutral by 2012, increase recycling, and source materials from sustainable sources. Rated joint first for sustainable fish by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), and all wood is Forest Stewardship Council certified (FSC).
Animal welfare: The first 100% free range egg supermarket and the first to phase out battery eggs. No intensively farmed poultry of any variety, and all pork will be free range in 5 years.
Corporate behaviour: Plan A is a uniquely ambitious, and will make M+S into one of the UK’s most ethically sound corporations by 2012.
Fairtrade: The first supermarket to adopt Fairtrade, and the biggest retailer of Fairtrade products by market share. All bananas sold are Fairtrade as are all drinks in in-store cafes, and all own-brand tea and coffee will be by 2010 .
Environment: Has the highest proportion of recyclable packaging of any of the supermarkets. Every store is now linked to local charities, so that spare food is given away rather than dumped in landfill. 75% of wood products are FSC certified.
Animal welfare: Stocks higher welfare products as alternative choices, and is committed to improving conditions. No battery eggs for sale, and by 2012 none will be used in own brand products.
Corporate behaviour: Was fined £26m in 2007 after it admitted to price fixing on dairy products, along with Asda and others. Uses reverse auctions to secure low prices,
Fairtrade: Works with the Rainforest Alliance for its in-store cafes, and Fairtrade range was substantially expanded through 2007-2008.
Environment: Having been rated worst on environmental policy in 2007, Morisons pledged a series of changes, including halving its waste and reducing its carbon footprint by a third. Rated best on sustainable wood use, with 100% of tissue and furniture sourced from FSC sources. Doesn’t sell any fish on the MCS list of fish to avoid.
Animal welfare: Free range meat available, but not championed. Eggs will be 100% free range by 2010, two years ahead of the EU’s ban on battery eggs.
Corporate behaviour: Little information on their wider practices, since all the campaigners go after Tesco and Asda, and Morisons own public reporting is limited. (compare the amount of information on Waitrose’s site with Morisons’, for example). Scores very low on Ethical Consumer’s ‘ethiscore’.
Fairtrade: Stocks a good range of Fairtrade items and has made some moves towards own-brand ethics. However, Tesco’s enormous buying power and global sourcing hubs mean it gets unscrupulously low prices elsewhere. War on Want found garment workers in India being paid as little as 16p an hour, and ActionAid reports widespread exploitation among third world suppliers.
Environment: Talks a very good game on climate change, and time will tell how they live up to the rhetoric. Found to have the least unnecessary packaging in a British Market Research Bureau survey. One of the few supermarkets to pledge to stock more local produce, but then got in trouble over its definition of local in its advertising.
Animal welfare: Uncooperative on free range meat, as followers of the Chicken Out campaign will be aware, but does sell some higher welfare alternatives. No promises on eggs and will run the EU ban to the wire.
Corporate behaviour: A giant and an easy target, Tesco has attracted a number of high profile enemies, including the Tescopoly campaign. It has been particularly heavy handed in its overseas branches, with Tesco Lotus in Thailand pursuing critics for millions of pounds in damages. Along with Asda, Tesco declined to take part in the ‘Race to the Top‘ initiative to develop shared standards for supermarkets, killing it dead.
Fairtrade: Asda’s George clothing line has a terrible record on sweatshops. War on Want found workers on wages as low as 7p an hour in Bangladesh last year. Refused to take part in the ‘Race to the Top’ campaign, thwarting efforts to reform supermarket behaviour.
Environment: Uses FSC certified wood in a number of ranges. Has pledged to send no waste to landfill by 2010. Policies on climate change and environmental reporting are considered weak.
Animal welfare: No commitment on eggs or meat, but sells some alternatives. Along with Tesco, the only two major supermarkets to continue selling battery eggs until the ban takes effect. Rated worst for animal welfare in the Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping.
Corporate behaviour: Part of ‘the Wal-Mart’ family, the world’s largest retailer and notorious for it’s practices, including sweatshop labour and union-busting. Is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, but Asda was rated 0 out of 20 in Ethical Consumer’s ‘ethiscore’.
Fairtrade: Has its own certified sub-brand, Fairglobe, which has five products so far.
Environment: Scores worst on recyclable packaging. Does not report on environmental impact, so we can only presume that its making no effort.
Animal welfare: Limited stocking in higher welfare alternatives, but has made no commitments of its own.
Corporate behaviour: Terrible reputation among European retail unions, and caused a scandal last year when it emerged that Lidl routinely spied on its employees in Germany. A hugely complex corporate structure makes it very hard to hold Lidl accountable.
Fairtrade: The first ‘discount’ supermarket to launch an own-brand Fairtrade product, Aldi has Fairtrade tea. Sometimes. It’s a rotating item and not available every week. German campaigners have found widespread abuse of garment workers in China and Indonesia.
Environment: Recently won an award for having the highest percentage of recyclable cardboard in its packaging. Little information about other aspects of environmental performance.
Animal welfare: Very poor, but only stocks a limited range of meat products.
Corporate behaviour: Like Lidl, Aldi does almost no corporate reporting, so we are left to assume the worst on its ethical performance. Bizzarrely, the Aldi group owns the Trader Joes chain in the US, which is known for its natural and wholesome food.
In summary, if you must shop at the supermarkets your best bets are the Co-operative, Waitrose, and Marks and Spencer, probably in that order. All three are progressive businesses in environmental and social policy. The first two aren’t corporations either, and can afford not to pursue profit as aggressively as the others.
In the middle come Sainsburys, who have some good policies and are making better progress than Morisons, mainly because Morisons started from behind.
Tesco and Asda are in another category, being enormous and utterly irresponsible. They may yet implement some better policies, but their whole business model is rooted in the worst kind of growth capitalism, and it’s hard to recommend them.
Finally, the discount retailers, Lidl, Aldi, (and Netto, Kwiksave and so on) do very little reporting, but there is no way they could afford to sell at the prices they do and maintain decent ethical policies. Some of them are taking small steps, but the campaigns that deal with them are mainly in Germany and Holland, so we don’t tend to hear as much about them.
Still, I’d recommend avoiding the supermarkets whenever possible.