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Grocery sector’s green claims are greenwash, according to research

Greenwashing is “rampant” across UK supermarkets with chains promoting “minor” green initiatives while avoiding significant action on emissions from meat and dairy products, according to research by Feedback, an NGO.

“Our research shows that all 10 UK supermarkets are failing to take basic measures to address their sales of meat and dairy products, despite these products making up around a third of their carbon footprint,” it noted in the ‘Greenwash grocers scorecard 2023’. The NGO has reported two supermarkets to regulators on the back of its findings.

Using publicly available information and store visits, the scorecard assesses the UK’s top food retailers across 12 indicators. These are divided between three categories: data disclosure, marketing and in-store practices. Feedback took account of everything from marketing of scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions reductions and publication of protein splits, to targets to reduce sales of meat and dairy and the use of multi-buy deals.

Greenwashing tactics included ‘selective disclosure’, in which companies disclose only some elements of their climate or environmental impact.

Aldi UK and Ireland for example claims it has been carbon neutral since January 2019, but fails to mention this is only for scopes 1 and 2, which represent less than 1% of its emissions, Feedback noted.

Tesco, meanwhile, promotes its electric delivery vehicles, using their visibility on the road to market the company’s green credentials, including the slogan ‘Greener Greens’. These vans will save 82,000 tonnes of carbon per year by 2030, representing just 0.1% of the company’s overall emissions this year. 

Feedback has reported Tesco and Aldi to the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards respectively. It has written to the Competition and Markets Authority with evidence of all the supermarkets’ failure to substantiate environmental claims with real plans to reduce emissions from their supply chain.

Of particular concern to Feedback is the lack of action in relation to meat and dairy products, which carry large environmental footprints.

All 10 of the chains assessed promote a plant-based range, but none has a target or plan to reduce its overall sales of meat and dairy products. Seven of the 10 retailers sold meat and dairy products featuring environmental claims about packaging, another greenwashing tactic designed to “falsely reassuring shoppers that these products are ‘green’”, according to Feedback. 

Where food retailers have recognised the need to reduce emissions from meat and dairy, they are delaying reduction targets in favour of “unproven technological fixes in their supply chain”, the NGO claimed. 

Morrisons’ net-zero policy for example is based on “blueprint beef farms”, which Feedback branded “window-dressing projects with no proof of output or scalability”.

The CMA has produced a green claims guide to help companies avoid greenwashing; it also recently launched an investigation into the claims made by food companies. Last month, the ASA published new guidance on making environmental claims.

Feedback’s report follows similar criticism of UK supermarkets, manufacturers and foodservice companies in a report by the Changing Markets Foundation and Tortoise Media’s Better Food Index.

Research by The Grocer last year also found “scant information” on the progress supermarkets were making towards scope 3 emissions reductions.