The sustainability balance for supermarkets

Written by: Stephen Cameron | Published:
Stephen Cameron

The negative impacts of climate change are widespread, with David Attenborough calling it a ‘catastrophe’, Swedish schoolgirl climate activist Greta Thunberg labelling it an ‘existential crisis’ and calls for rapid action across all industries.

Conscious consumers are putting increasing pressure on retailers to make large-scale and long-term changes across the entire supply chain, from addressing carbon dioxide emissions to limiting single-use plastics and waste at all levels.

The supermarket dilemma

For supermarkets in particular the task to create a completely sustainable supply chain from farm to fork may seem like an impossible feat. The supply chain structure that supermarkets have moulded over the years doesn’t leave much room for a single-use plastic and packaging-free landscape.

Local produce is uncommon, with many products imported, mass produced or grown miles and miles away from the store, resulting in mountains of necessary packaging to ensure it reaches the store in good quality and that the quality remains ahead of any best before or use by date.

In response to this challenge, schemes such as ‘wonky veg’ have been rolled out, to try and encourage a more widespread consumer acceptance of ‘imperfect’ produce that may be slightly damaged - such as Lidl’s ‘Too Good to Waste’ boxes - and supermarkets have strived to source more locally.

In terms of food safety, however, the answer has always been to increase the amount of plastic and general packaging involved to extend shelf-life and also reduce food waste. This may seem like a positive for the environment, but a recent report from Friends of the Earth Europe and Zero Waste Europe, states that removing single-use plastics is not the answer to reducing food waste, and can in fact increase it.

While there is no disputing the fact plastics can improve shelf-life and in some cases reduce the potential damage in the journey from store to kitchen, the actual result is that people are encouraged to buy more food than they can consume, for instance multipacks of fruit and vegetables.

This in turn, contributes to increased food waste on top of the waste created by single-use plastic packaging. A study from food waste charity Feedback found that the practice of simply chopping green beans to fit into plastic packaging resulted in 30 to 40% of the beans being wasted, as well as the food waste created from the imperfect beans.

There are so many complex drivers behind the issue of food waste, including the oversupply and undervaluing of food. In many ways supermarkets are responding to consumer demands, particularly for convenience with pre-packed sandwiches and ‘on-the-go’ ranges. So what can be done to encourage successful widespread integral change?


Government has made steps towards a more sustainable future by introducing a plastics tax which calls for retailers producing a plastic product that is made from less than 30% recycled material, to pay a tax. The current fees and which products will be liable are being decided, but there’s no doubt it will have massive repercussions for supermarkets, where plastics are so heavily integrated in the model.

After all, government is hoping to have the same size impact as the single-use plastic bag charge that was introduced in October 2015, a 5p charge that’s been deemed one of the most powerful changes to date, shocking policymakers with statistics revealing a drop in usage from 7.6 billion in 2014 to only 1.75 billion in 2017-18. Furthermore, Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy demonstrates a commitment to change, starting with plans to ban plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds from April 2020.

Looking forward

Although the forthcoming changes sound distant, the timescales are realistic for retailers and manufacturers to implement changes to their packaging production and internal processes. As well as generating additional income for the treasury the tax will expand the market for recycled plastic materials.

But is this enough? While initiatives like a plastics tax should be commended, retailers need to aim higher to ensure that supply chains are overhauled in time to halt climate change.

Better waste management is key and preventing waste in the first place by streamlining the entire supply chain is even more crucial, ensuring that packaging and food waste is organised, minimised and only present where absolutely necessary.

The true cost of waste is not restricted to the price of taking it away – it’s often buried in processes and practices within a business that create waste in the first place. By tweaking those processes and adopting better behaviours, the volume of waste companies generate can dramatically fall. This naturally leads to a reduction in disposal costs and, more importantly, significant operational costs savings earlier on in the food chain, opening up opportunities for retailers to innovate and improve sustainability further.

Stephen Cameron is business development director at waste management company SWRnewstar

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