business corporate responsibility food shopping

Which is the most ethical supermarket?

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).

Introduction and sources detailed here.

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.

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  1. You end by writing, “I’d recommend avoiding the supermarkets whenever possible.”

    Where else can we turn to?

    Local farmers’ markets, yes, but I think you are unlikely to get more than a smallish proportion of what most people eat at farmers’ markets.

    Independent local shops generally sell the very same products that supermarkets do, but are at the ends of less efficient supply chains so they are probably no better ecologically. Also no better for my wallet, usually.

    I shop at the Co-op, my fruit and veg is strictly UK-grown and in-season, and I carry it home by bicycle. I think I’m doing pretty well…?

    1. Tesco sell foie gras in Hungary and live turtles in China, both extremely cruel.

      Go with Sainsburys or Waitrose. Compassion in World Farming has a good guide.

  2. Yes, it is a difficultly for a lot of people, my household included. That’s why I thought it was worth investigating the ethics of the supermarkets, rather than just condemning them all equally.

    I get my fresh produce from the local grocer, but I’m aware of what a privilege it is to have one of those in this day and age. I know others who buy wholesale through groups like Suma. And there’s the local box scheme too of course.

    As for corner shops, their supply chains may be marginally worse ecologically, but they are usually within walking distance, and that’s a key factor sustainable shopping.

  3. What happens to the farm/sweatshop workers if we all boycott the super markets? I am guessing the supermarkets will be forced to improve their policies to win back customers.

  4. Aldi : Environment: Performed joint worst with Lidl on over-packaging, and like them, shows no evidence that the environment ever crosses their minds.

    I was wondering where this infromation came from because i cant find anuthing that agrees with this

    1. Hi Nina, I’ve gone back and checked on Aldi’s environmental performance for you, and the report I used is now out of date – Aldi actually won an award just yesterday for its packaging. I’ve amended their entry accordingly. I’d like to keep this as up to date as possible, so thanks for asking!

  5. I try to buy fair trade and organic when ever possible.
    My daughter explained to me that special offers in the supermarkets give the customer good value but this is taken from the farmers profits and not the supermarkets

  6. Where is the best source of info on the ethicality of supermarkets?

    If someone could tell me where to find a detailed product-by-product analysis of the food supply chains for the supermarkets, that would be extremely useful. Why has such a document not been produced? Any information on food-supply chains would be appreciated – although I find it extremely unsatisfactory that such information is not public knowledge.

    It is my right as a consumer to know where my food came from so that I can make informed choices about what to buy.

    1. Hi Dan, as far as I know there hasn’t been a whole lot of work done on this, which is why I pulled together some reports myself. A product by product analysis hasn’t been done because it would be hugely complicated and expensive, and no single agency would be able to complete it. It’s much easier for us as consumers to look up the things that we buy.

  7. Is there an up to date account of our supermarkets, and list of ethical shops anywhere?
    thank you
    Linda squires

      1. You can’t read that unless you’re a paid subscriber. It just wastes people’s time to post links they have to pay to read without a warning.

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  11. As long as I can remember, the Co-op in the UK has had terrible service and very high prices. Unlike som well-paid professionals, we translators and interpretors are subsiting on a fraction of what we used to earn in the 1980s, when I was paid one Swedish crown
    per word for translations from that language into English. My rate today is one Swedish crown per word, which, taking inflation into account, means that I am earning 20-30% of what I used to. In 1978, I worked as an international telephonist with the GPO and in a good week my after-tax earnings were around £100 per week. Wages in the UK and the USA have just stagnated thanks to the double whammy of Thatcher followed by the Blair and Brown bodging neo-conservatives. Lidl in the Uk source a lot of their fruit and veg from British growers, which is more than Tesco does, as they have everything produced in China, even including their own brand of toothpaste, while Sainsbury’äs produces it in the UK and ASDA, in the EU. In assessing the ethical impact of supermarkets, it would seem a good idea to take into account the carbon footprint involved in importing and transport the goods they sell and not just look at reporting etc.

  12. “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. ”

    Aldi may in fact have horrible corporate behavior, but it is not fair to look at their low prices and assume that they must reflect poor ethical policies. A big reason Aldi has low prices is because of the measures they take to trim overhead. Everything from eliminating the need for cart boys, products on labor-saving pallets, and not having extras like banks and pharmacies in store, these all reduce costs in ways that are ethical.

    Here are some links explaining this on Aldi’s website.

    Also, here is a PDF that defines Aldi’s Corporate Responsibility. I can’t verify this information and of course it does have an automatic bias seeing as it comes from Aldi, but they do affirm a fair trade stance and go into an interesting level of detail. See page 3 especially. Something to think about at least.

    Click to access ALDI_Corporate_Responsibility_Policy.pdf

    1. You’re right, there is more to the story here, and the discount stores’ reporting has improved since this post was written in 2009 too. I’ve been meaning to update it for a while, and when I do, I’ll try and include more detail about these brands.

      Thanks for your contribution.

  13. Hi Thanks for a very well researched and clearly presented articled which in 2009 was spot on. However, things have changed a great deal and this article is promoting the likes of Waitrose who actually came second from the bottom in a supermarket ethical and animal welfare survey done last year. Interestingly neither that survey nor any other animal welfare/ethical standard survey, report or blog seems to be available since yours – the only ones that are seem suspicious.

    I really hope you will research and update your site as it is a valuable source of information and is likely to affect many people’s (who care) spending habits

    Note Sainsbury’s topped the list as the most animal friendly and ethical supermarket in the survey I read last year – unsurprisingly Tesco came bottom.

    Many thanks.

    1. Hi Michael,
      Not sure if you will see this but I would really appreciate a link to that article if you have it?

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