corporate responsibility shopping

Sainsburys – a sustainable supermarket by 2020?

Yesterday UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s launched an ambitious new sustainability strategy.  It has set itself 20 goals to achieve over the next decade, through set of commitments called the 20 by 20 sustainability plan (pdf). But is it any good, or is it another exercise in green PR?

Well, I read it on the train home last night, and you certainly can’t fault the motives. The introduction certainly recognises the size and the scope of the problem:

The planet is under strain and the choices we make about the products we buy have never been more important. The global population is rising at a time when natural resources are decreasing. As such, there is increasing pressure on the global food system. The earth’s capacity to provide food is threatened by climate change, water scarcity and unsustainable farming practices. We need to find ways to make land more productive and to protect the biodiversity on which all food production ultimately depends. That means building resilient supply chains to ensure long term security of sustainable supply.

That’s a pretty good top-line summary of the problem, and the 20 goals that follow actually broaden the set of concerns further. The majority of them are environmental, but others are about community building and investing in staff. They include sustainable sourcing of key raw materials, doubling sales of British food, higher welfare meat and dairy, and cuts in carbon emissions. The social goals include selling a billion a year in Fairtrade goods, and raising the number of share-owning employees by 25%.

It’s easy to be cynical about these sorts of things, as obviously Sainsbury’s intend to grow and see their sustainability targets as part of a business strategy that involves selling more stuff and opening more stores. Ultimately, we consumers need to eat seasonal, eat local, and eat less, and supermarkets tend to work against all of those things. They’re also out-of-town, meaning people generally have to drive to their supermarket, even if it’s a zero-carbon store.

However, supermarkets aren’t going to go anywhere soon, so campaigning for ethical and sustainable supermarkets is just as important as encouraging the alternatives – the farmers markets, local loyalty schemes, growing your own and community-supported agriculture. So Sainsbury’s efforts are to be applauded. And since it’s up to us to hold them to their policies, here’s a little more detail about what they’re proposing.

Sustainable raw materials
The company aims to sustainably source its 30 most common raw materials used in own-brand products, and that includes timber, palm oil, soya, cotton and sugar. The aim is for 100% traceability within the supply chain, and this is actually hugely ambitious. For some products, this is currently possible, and some progress is already being made. All palm oil will be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil by 2014. 93% of timber is FSC certified already. For other areas, there is no organising body overseeing the commodity, so Sainsburys will have to go it alone or pioneer a governing body. Accordingly, they promise to “play an active role in shaping existing independent standards and developing new standards that currently don’t exist.”

Sustainable fish
All fish sold will be independently certified as sustainable by 2020. Sainsbury’s are already the leading retailer of Marine Stewardship Council fish, and have pushed pole-caught tuna and RSPCA Freedom Foods salmon. Interestingly, the plan recognises the need to change shopping habits, and so plans to “diversify our offer and drive sales and consumption beyond the big five (cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns).”

British food
This is the goal that the news has picked up on. Sainsbury’s intend to work with farmers to double the amount of British food on the shelves, including seasonal and local offerings. Some supermarkets already make efforts to stock local produce, but it doesn’t fit well into the centralised supply systems and I’ll be interested to see how they do it. I’m also interested to see how far they’re prepared to take the pledge. Stocking more local and seasonal food is one thing – but will they cut the number of non-seasonal lines? Or refuse to stock perverse imports, like the New Zealand apples still on sale in the height of British apple season?

Amimal welfare
“All our meat, poultry, eggs, game and dairy products will be sourced from suppliers who adhere to independent higher welfare standards” is the promise here. The chain already has Freedom Foods chicken and outdoor reared pork products on sale, but moving everything to those standards is going to be tricky. There isn’t enough high welfare farming in the country to meet their demands yet, so they will need to change farmer’s minds and pay good enough prices to make it worth their while switching to less productive but more humane methods.

Carbon emissions
The chain aims to reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2020, and 50% by 2030. This includes renewable energy generation, use of biomass (it has 20 biomass-heated stores) and the use of natural refrigerants. Importantly, the document recognises that the actual point of sale is not the main source of emissions, so it intends to include suppliers of own-brand goods in the CO2 targets. Suppliers will need to lower their emissions by 50%.

By 2020, all waste will be put to ‘positive use’. This isn’t a zero-waste strategy, but the plan is to use waste productively. Nothing will go to landfill. Food that can’t go to charity will be used for power generation through anaerobic digestion. Customers will be encouraged to recycle more.

Already the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade goods at £280 million a year, the plan aims for £1 billion in sales by 2020. The big task here is pushing Fairtrade standards beyond the luxury commodities of coffee and chocolate, and onto staples. The delivery goal that caught my eye is for 100% Fairtrade rice, pulses and beans.

There’s more to explore in the full document, including halving packaging, tackling deforestation and improving water use. Another useful aspect of the plan is that Sainsbury’s will be expecting higher standards from suppliers too, so the hope is that their business will raise the game of branded products across the board. At their level of purchasing, major brands won’t want to score badly on the proposed ethical trading score cards that Sainsbury’s will be trialling.

Will all this work? Or will be consumed by the inevitable cost-cutting agenda? In part that’s up to us, whether we’re customers of Sainsbury’s or not. But for now, it’s refreshing to see a supermarket in the news for the right reasons.


  1. I tried, but you words stayed in place! Trying again on next line:

    This sounds like potentially excellent news, provided they follow through and actually do it.

    However, I do wish people would stop talking about “carbon emissions” when they mean “carbon dioxide emissions”. Carbon is not a greenhouse gas. It is a solid, usually black, and harmless except in a relatively minor way when emitted as black smoke. Carbon dioxide is not even mainly carbon – by weight it is more than twice as much oxygen as carbon, so it would make (very slightly) more sense to talk about “oxygen emissions”!

    I shall post the above paragraph (as a separate small item) to my own WordPress page at and my Live Journal page at because I do find that misuse so irritating.

    1. Apologies, I use carbon emissions as shorthand, when of course I do mean carbon dioxide emissions. It is confusing though, because sometimes we’re talking CO2, sometimes greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide equivalents, and sometimes black carbon – which is serious too.

  2. Just to amplify Jeremy’s point, since it may be helpful:
    ‘Carbon emissions’ may be more appropriate in many cases, since the figures people often work with are CO2 equivalents. What we need to address are *all* greenhouse gases, including important ones like methane, NOx, etc. ‘Carbon emissions’ may then be the best shorthand to cover this. So i think the challenge for us all is to be aware of what the data actually *is* behind the words/figures we bandy around, and to use appropriate shorthand terms that will form the right impression in more casual/less-informed readers’ minds.

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