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Sustain Supermarkets, health and sustainability

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 on a variety of industry and government-led initiatives to stimulate changes in supermarket policies and practices, as well as supporting the call for a Supermarket Ombudsman (now a Groceries Code Adjudicator), and helping communities build better food trading schemes, to help them take more control of their food and where it comes from.

The latest national initiative on the food industry's influence - on our health, sustainability and the climate and nature emergency - is the National Food Strategy, published summer 2021. Government is due to publish a White Paper in response during 2022.

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:

  • Over recent years, Sustain co-founded and has actively supported the work of the Groceries Code Action Network, working on fair dealing in the food supply chain, aiming to tackle the power imbalance between supermarket buyers and suppliers. We also support better routes to market for agroecologically grown food, which diversify the supply chain and provide better return to farmers, for example Better Food Traders.
  • Super Market Failure: Low wages, high pay disparities and unfair trade – is this what we want from food retail?  A research briefing from Sustain's sustainable farming campaign.
  • Resistance & Responsibility: antibiotic use in supermarket supply chains
    In 2021 the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics published our latest report into the farm antibiotic policies of the UK’s leading supermarkets, calling on them to use buying policies to help halt the global antibiotic resistance crisis.
  • Work on front-of-pack traffic light nutrition labelling, which has been accepted by most major supermarkets for own-brand products, but vigorously resisted by some retailers and many food manufacturers.
  • The Competition Commission enquiry into trading practices within the supermarket sector.
  • The Sustainable Development Commission (since disbanded) 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 (since disbanded) 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. This initiative was a major investment by Defra, industry and the third sector to try and drive up standards through healthy competition. Race to the Top ended prematurely in 2004 when several supermarkets pulled out, mainly due to resistance to publishing data or being compared with others (download 320kb PDF final report).
  • Sustain also participated in the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy process, which took place over two years leading up to publication of the FISS strategy in 2011. However, Sustain and our members were 'underwhelmed' by the impact and influence of this initiative.

Such work shows 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, where selling more and competing on lower prices remain the dominant drivers - to the detriment of people's health and the environment. In this situation, it is difficult to see how we can shop our way out of the problem, alongside weak regulation, temporary educational initiatives, misleading food labelling, and a sprinkling of greener products sold at a premium.


Supermarkets, health and sustainability: 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.

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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.

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