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Sustain Supermarkets, health and sustainability

Race to the Top: Lessons learned

Public interest organisations have been deeply critical of the dominance of supermarkets over the food system. Supermarkets are accused of driving a ‘race to the bottom’ by procuring food ‘grown anywhere, anyhow’ with scant regard for standards of labour; conservation of wildlife and landscapes; livelihoods (or even survival) of family farms; congestion of roads; the demise of vibrant high streets; waste management; farm animal welfare; or the health and food security of low income communities.

Race to the Top was an ambitious project, sponsored by the government's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It set out to develop benchmarks in partnership with a broad coalition of public interest organisations, and to work with leading supermarkets to apply them. The overall aim was to promote accountability and transparency within the UK supermarket sector, in doing so building incentives for the major UK supermarket companies to improve and communicate their social, environmental and ethical policies and performance over a five-year period.

The project ended prematurely following a confidential ‘pilot’ year (2002) in which six supermarkets took part and one ‘public’ year (2003), in which only three supermarkets participated. Race to the Top was brought to a close in 2004 when several supermarkets pulled out. The final report of this process is highly informative, and sobering reading for anyone who assumes that "corporate social responsibility" alone can bring about significant improvements for health and sustainability (download 320kb PDF final report).

The Race to the Top project was a collaborative initiative, involving many public interest organisations (including Sustain) and coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development. The website remains at


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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