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Love them or loathe them, supermarkets are highly convenient and the majority of the British public uses them regularly. They hold a central place in the current retail economy and have a great deal of power – over producers, individuals, and the way food is farmed and transported. While some supermarkets still have a very long way to go, others are making significant efforts to use their power more benignly and conduct their business in an ethical manner.
A huge power
For every £1 of household expenditure around 49p is spent in supermarkets. And of this, 33p is spent in just the four largest supermarket groups (Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco). So, for the ethical shopper, the choice of supermarket is probably one of the most crucial decisions to make.
The first supermarkets as we know them today opened in the 19th century, when the Co-operative Movement formed a group of local retailers. Today the UK shopping landscape looks quite different, with 80 per cent of grocery shopping being done in supermarkets. As William Moyes, Director General of the British Retail Consortium, said: ‘Let’s be honest, life without supermarkets would be hell… What used to take all day now takes a couple of hours.’ With better value, more choice and more convenience, no wonder the British public seem to be in love with supermarkets. But however much we try to ignore it, this convenience comes at a serious cost.
There are some ethical areas in which supermarkets have made a lot of progress, and are even showing the way for other big businesses. The four product sectors below have increased in availability as a result of support from supermarkets, which have the selling power to move an alternative brand into the mainstream market. In each case, however, demand by people has had a huge effect in getting the changes made.
More fair trade products
All supermarkets now sell some fair trade products – products which give a fairer price to farmers and producers in the developing world. Furthermore, most of them also have their own fair trade brands.
More organic products
The Soil Association says that ‘our health is directly connected to the health of the food we eat, ultimately to the health of the soil’. Organic farming refers to the growing of food crops without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilisers. Pests are controlled by cultivation techniques and the use of pesticides derived from natural sources. Organic farmers may use seven out of the hundreds of pesticides available. Moreover, animals are reared without the routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers, common in intensive livestock farming.
In response to growing concern by a large group of people about the quality of the food they eat, big retailers have made real efforts to provide a wider range of organic products.
Today the Co-op is considered the largest organic ‘farmer’ in the UK. Sainsbury’s has received its third award from the Soil Association for being best organic retailer. Both received Soil Association approval for their own-brand products.
Putting a stop to GM
Genetically modified (GM) foods are foods produced using plant or animal ingredients that have been modified using gene technology. The British public are anxious about the use of GM foods because their effects on human health are unknown. Also, releasing genetically altered organisms into the environment could disrupt ecosystems, and genetically modified crops have been proved to be more harmful to many groups of wildlife than their conventional equivalent.
The major supermarkets have reacted to social opposition to genetically modified food and have taken measures to reduce the number of products containing GMOs. All major supermarket chains now store non-GM products. However consumers should be careful when buying dairy, meat and eggs as these are likely to come from animals fed on GM feed. Although for many years supermarkets were sourcing these products from animals not fed on GM feed, in 2013 the supermarkets started changing their policies, allowing GM-fed animal products onto their shelves once more. Despite consumer opposition, supermarkets say there is not enough non-GM feed to allow them to source GM-free animal products. The only way to guarantee GM free animal products is choosing certified organic products.
More vegetarian products
Some people choose a vegetarian diet for religious, ethical or environmental reasons, or to save money. Others switch to a plantbased diet for health reasons. A vegetarian diet generally contains less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and includes more dietary fibre. Vegetarians have lower rates of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and type-2 diabetes. The vegetable kingdom provides all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats needed for the human diet, although it is important to watch what you eat to be sure of getting the nutrients from vegetables that you miss from animal foods.
Most people become vegetarians out of concern for animal welfare. The green pastures and pastoral barnyard scenes of years past have been replaced by windowless metal warehouses, wire cages and gestation crates in the factory farms of today. On factory farms, animals often spend their entire lives confined to cages or stalls barely larger than their own bodies. And death for these animals doesn’t always come quickly or painlessly.
Today, it is possible to find a good range of vegetarian products in our supermarket aisles. Compared to Europe, the UK has quite an advanced approach to labelling their products as suitable for vegetarians.
The opening of a big out-of-town supermarket inevitably has an effect on smaller high street shops. The number of butchers dropped from 23,000 in 1985 to around 6,000 in the early 2000s, at the same time as small newsagents were closing at the rate of one per day. This situation has been exacerbated by the growth of branded convenience stores, which, due to their town-centre locations, pitch themselves directly against independent shops.
Crucially, while supermarkets create new jobs, they can also have an impact on existing employment – particularly if small stores lose business as a result of increased competition. Nevertheless, in response to a growing appetite for ethically-traded foods, many communities are pulling together to establish stronger local initiatives, such as farmers’ markets and home-delivered vegetable boxes.
The supermarkets themselves are also working harder to improve their reputations, and are in the process of making a number of positive changes to their environmental and sourcing policies. For example the major stores now source in-season fruit and vegetables from Britain, rather than abroad.
Ethical shopping concerns
Although the supermarkets can be commended for the improvements given above, there are still a number of areas in which more could be done to address people’s concerns. These include:
As large-scale operations, supermarkets rely on industrial farms to produce the huge quantities of food they require. The balance of power in these producer-retailer relationships is usually weighted towards the big stores, which can make it difficult for smaller suppliers to have their voices heard. A public code of conduct, covering issues such as contractual terms, de-listing and product pricing, would reassure shoppers that the people who produce their foods are being treated fairly.
2) Healthy foods
Obesity continues to be a growing problem in the UK, and while supermarkets cannot be blamed for our expanding waistlines, they undoubtedly have a prominent role in influencing our food choices. The introduction of labelling systems such as traffic lights, which indicate the level of fat, sugar and salt in a product, is a major step forward, but clear, straightforward labelling is needed on all products to ensure that people really know what they are buying.
3) Loyalty cards
Loyalty cards can be indispensable moneysaving devices for regular supermarket shoppers, but they also allow stores to keep an unprecedented amount of data on their patrons. This enables them to build up extensive profiles of their cardholders, a procedure that is currently used to improve the supermarket’s quality of service, but which could soon branch into other areas such as security and surveillance. Greater transparency from the supermarkets about the information they hold – and what they plan to do with it – should be a priority.
Environmentalists have long been concerned about food miles – the distance food has travelled to get to your plate. Now there is greater awareness of this, and today’s shoppers are confronted with the ‘food miles dilemma’: do you choose a packet of organic beans imported from Africa, helping a local farmer overseas, but which came to England on an aircraft emitting tons of CO2 into the atmosphere? This transportation also leads to extra packaging, and means the food has been chemically treated to keep it fresh during the journey. What is even more nonsensical is when, thanks to tax-free aviation fuel, we import food we could easily grow ourselves.
The oddities of the global market, and our demand for exotic foods, can lead to ridiculous situations. In 1997, 126 million litres of cow’s milk was imported into the UK at the same time as 270 million litres was exported. Animals suffer from our desire to have all products available everywhere; they often have to be carried alive for hundreds of miles before they are slaughtered. Another economic issue linked with food miles is ‘just-in-time’ food management. It is an operations approach whereby food is rushed to superstores only when it is needed, to save on expensive storage. This leads to refrigerated trucks doing frequent daily return journeys to farms, only collecting some of the merchandise, with a resultant increase in pollution.
Sustain, an organisation campaigning for ethical farming, warns that as road freight increases and more and more people drive to out-of-town supermarkets, it is even more important to reduce the number of miles travelled by our food. It would like to see the end of air-freighted food altogether.
Tips for your next shopping trip:
- Buy from the supermarket whose ethical policies you believe in
- Buy locally-produced, organic and fair-trade goods where possible
- Buy ethically accredited brands so you know they have been properly checked out – and you are buying more than just ethical claims!
Ethical Supermarkets’ Rankings Detailed Table
Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.
We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Co-op, Budgens, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Waitrose, Iceland, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Tesco, ASDA
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