The battles between supermarkets are among the most intense in business. In an industry full of competition, price-cuts, special offers, even adverts deriding competitors are all regularly deployed in the hunt for consumer spending. However, now a pleasing new rivalry is emerging – a competition as to who can change their working practices to become more sustainable.
As covered in these pages, and as discussed at World Bio Markets last month in Amsterdam, there has been a genuine shift in awareness from consumers as to the environmental impact on their shopping choices. And with the threat of money being spent elsewhere and bad publicity, supermarkets are responding with changes to how they operate. In the Netherlands, supermarket chain Ekoplaza, announced in February, it had begun rolling out ‘plastic free aisles’, beginning with its Amsterdam branch where shoppers will be able to choose from more than 700 plastic-free products. This is not only a great development, but one that generated headlines around the world, worth millions of Euros of free publicity for the supermarket.
In the UK this week, these sustainable developments have continued with two major announcement that have made not just the business pages but national news.
Waitrose ( @waitrose ) supermarket has committed to removing all takeaway disposable coffee cups from its shops by autumn 2018, saving more than 52 million cups a year. Customers will instead have to provide their own reusable cup. Removing the cups further underlines the supermarket’s commitment to reducing its impact on the environment and its use of plastics and packaging.
It recently pledged to not sell any own label food in black plastic beyond 2019 - an earlier date than any other supermarket. It has also committed to make all own-label packaging widely recyclable (using the widely recycled logo), reusable, or home compostable by 2025. And its cafes have now also replaced plastic straws with paper versions.
Tor Harris, Head of Sustainability and Responsible Sourcing at Waitrose, speaking at the announcement: “We realise this is a major change, but we believe removing all takeaway disposable cups is the right thing to do for our business and are confident the majority of customers will support the environmental benefits. It underlines our commitment to plastic and packaging reduction and our aim is to deliver this as quickly as possible.”
Whilst, probably the leader in the UK supermarket sustainable battle, frozen food specialist, Iceland ( @IcelandFoods ), have built on their previous announcements in regard to plastics and packaging and announced this week that it will stop using palm oil as an ingredient in all its own label food by the end of 2018. In fact, this project is already underway, with palm oil successfully removed from 50 percent of its own label range; 130 products will have been reformulated by the end of the year.
Growing demand for palm oil for use in food products, cosmetics and biodiesel is devastating tropical rainforests across South East Asia. In Indonesia and Malaysia, where expanding palm oil and wood pulp plantations are the biggest driver of deforestation , many species are being threatened with extinction, including the orangutan, already critically endangered. Recently published studies show that Bornean orangutan numbers more than halved between 1999 and 2015, with only 70,000–100,000 individuals remaining . In Indonesia alone, 146 football pitches of rainforests are lost every hour. Deforestation also results in increased global carbon emissions. In 2014, Indonesia had the fourth largest greenhouse gas emissions, mostly as a result of deforestation.
Palm oil is currently found in 50 per cent of all supermarket products, from bread to biscuits and breakfast cereal to soap.
Despite this: 35 per cent of consumers are unaware of what palm oil is. But when they are informed about palm oil and its effects on the environment, 85 per cent state that they do not believe palm oil should be used in food products. Iceland has made this ethical decision to remove palm oil in order to demonstrate to the food industry that it is possible to reduce the demand for palm oil whilst seeking solutions that do not destroy the world’s rainforest
Richard Walker ( @IcelandRichard ) Iceland Managing Director, comments: “Until Iceland can guarantee palm oil is not causing rainforest destruction, we are simply saying ‘no to palm oil’. We don’t believe there is such a thing as guaranteed ‘sustainable’ palm oil available in the mass market, so we are giving consumers a choice to say no to palm for the first time. “Having recently been to Indonesia and seen the environmental devastation caused by expanding palm oil production first hand, I feel passionately about the importance of raising awareness of this issue – and I know many British consumers share my concern and want to have a real choice about what they buy. This journey has shown me that, currently, no major supermarket or food manufacturer can substantiate any claim that the palm oil they use is truly sustainable, as the damage being caused to the global environment and communities in South East Asia is just too extensive.”
John Sauven ( @johnsauven ) Executive Director of Greenpeace UK comments: “Iceland has concluded that removing palm oil is the only way it can offer its customers a guarantee that its products do not contain palm oil from forest destruction. This decision is a direct response to the palm oil industry’s failure to clean up its act."