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Supermarkets, health and sustainability

Sustain takes an active interest in supermarket policies and activities on health and sustainability. Over the past decade or so, Sustain has worked in particular with the Greening Supermarkets, Healthier Supermarkets and Race to the Top initiatives to stimulate changes in supermarket policies and practices, as well as supporting the call for a Supermarket Ombudsman (now a Supermarket Adjudicator), and helping communities build alternative food trading schemes, to help them take more control of their food and where it comes from.

Sustain has witnessed, and indeed participated in, several major projects over the years to attempt to improve the health and sustainability of supermarket products and marketing practices, for example:

  • Work on front-of-pack traffic light nutrition labelling, which has been accepted by some supermarkets, but vigorously resisted by others.
  • The Competition Commission enquiry into trading practices within the supermarket sector;
  • The Sustainable Development Commission's 2008 review of supermarket ethics and sustainability, with the report Green, healthy and fair. See details by clicking here or download 3Mb PDF of final report.
  • The National Consumer Council's (now Consumer Focus) Rating Retailers surveys over several years, to compare the UK's leading for how well (or how badly) they help their customers to eat more healthily and make more sustainable choices, with reports as follows:


Health surveys:
Sustainability surveys:
  • An ambitious project called Race to the Top, sponsored by Defra, to provide an assessment of supermarket performance against independently audited sustainability indicators. Race to the Top ended prematurely in 2004 when several supermarkets pulled out (download 320kb PDF final report).

Reports of Sustain's involvement in some of these initiatives can be found using the update links in the menu on the left. They show how much effort public interest groups have put in over the years, to encourage, cajole or sometimes force supermarkets to improve their products and practices. Some supermarkets have responded, and some ground has been gained.

Given this slow progress, we remain opposed to voluntary approaches. Supermarkets operate in a highly competitive market and selling more remains the dominant driver - to the detriment of people's waistlines and the environment. In this situation, it is difficult to see how we can shop our way out of the problem, alongside weak regulation, lame educational initiatives, misleading food labelling, and a sprinkling of greener products sold at a premium.

Many of Sustain’s members have a range of concerns about supermarkets and are part of the Friends of the Earth campaigns Breaking the Armlock coalition or Tescopoly.  See these links for more details.




Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming

Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.