We check out Tesco’s new green shopping basket

The supermarket is working with WWF to cut the environmental impact of the average shop – but it’s a complicated job. By David Burrows.

What’s new? Tesco and WWF have announced they are working together to reduce the environmental impact of the average UK shopping basket by 50%. The project will run for four years as part of the retailer’s “Little Helps” plan.

Sounds like big news. It is. “In food production, it’s increasingly clear we’ve got a very significant crisis globally,” says Giles Bolton, Tesco’s responsible sourcing director. The food system is a key driver of biodiversity loss, emits about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and drives 80% of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. You could say it’s about time something was done.

So what exactly will Tesco and WWF do? Good question. The project has taken four years to sign off, but now what? At the moment, they are not quite sure. The focus is on how to define the average shopping basket, and then the metrics against which “environmental impact” will be measured. That is no piece of cake, either.

How so? For a start, each product comes with a different environmental footprint. An apple from the local farm might be pretty straightforward with fairly limited inputs. But start thinking about lifecycle analyses for a sirloin steak and you have to consider all the feed that went into the cow’s mouth, too. The scope of environmental impact also goes much further than carbon, covering soil, water, natural capital and so on. But it has to be done. “We can’t really manage anything we are not measuring,” says David Edwards, the WWF director of food strategy. “The first year will be investigating and articulating the metrics.”

If they don’t know the metrics, how did they come up with the 50% target? You’re on fire today. They wouldn’t say, but given that the metrics are yet to be defined this offers some scope for flexibility, shall we say. Regardless, it’s a pretty ambitious target. Reducing food waste along the supply chain will certainly take big chunks out of the basket’s impact, but Tesco will also have to put the squeeze on suppliers (producers and manufacturers) to reduce their impacts (and look at alternatives, too) and encourage its customers to make more sustainable choices.

Such as…? That depends on what the metrics say. There’s a fair bet there will need to be fewer meat and dairy products in the basket come 2023. That’s a touchy subject, of course, which is why Tesco is working with WWF – the NGO can act as a supply chain peacemaker in what promise to be some difficult conversations. “It’s frustrating when people represent this as a winners and losers equation,” says Bolton. He cites the supermarket’s Wicked Kitchen range of vegan meals: “That’s been a real success [and] it’s not strongly pitched as [environmentally friendly] but just a great range of products.” His customers don’t want to be told what to eat; they do want to eat more sustainably, but it has to be easy for them – “that’s the sweet spot.” Some 80% of shoppers want supermarkets to do more to offer food that is sourced in a responsible, sustainable way, according to new research published at the launch; however, 59% are confused about which foods count as sustainable and 75% think cost is a barrier.

So what does sustainable food look like? Sorry, but once again we’ll have to wait for those metrics. For years, experts have been scratching their heads on this very topic. There is a general consensus that less but better meat is a good idea, for example, but what “better” looks like is anyone’s guess. And that’s not all – you’ve also got some retailers pulling the plug on palm oil and cafés banning avocados in the interests of sustainability. There are high hopes that Tesco and WWF will be able to unpick some of these issues, especially the impact of food systems on biodiversity.

Ok, so once they’ve decided which products are the most sustainable, how will they let us know? I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll see little “green” logos on packaging – Tesco had its fingers burned on carbon labelling, if you recall. However, reducing emissions in the supply chain will only get you so far towards that magical 50% mark. Bolton is vague on whether brands with low impact would be backed with promotions (for example, discounts or placement in favourable locations in store). However, with a target of 50% reduction something has to give at the customer level. They also haven’t decided whether to use a UK shopping basket or specifically a Tesco one as the benchmark.

Surely a Tesco one makes sense. It does. I dare say they might do both, given that they seem interested to see whether Tesco’s basket shifts away from the national one.

Bet the public relations team would love that. Undoubtedly. But you do get the sense that this isn’t about a quick PR win – how can it be when it’s a four-year project? But that doesn’t mean these projects always bear fruit. Two years ago, Sainsbury’s announced that it was working with Oxford University scientists to redesign its stores in order to nudge shoppers to buy more vegetables and less meat – but we’ve not heard a peep since. Kené Umeasiegbu, Tesco’s head of environment, says the reputational benefits of the WWF project are “coincidental”. Indeed, he and Bolton talk of transparency and shifts within the industry; they are not being led by what is in the winds of the news today. “If it’s become the flavour of the month, then we are already working on it,” Umeasiegbu says.

Like plastic? Yes. Or perhaps palm oil. Both have been seized upon by Iceland – new masters of the supposedly quick-fix environmental policy. Umeasiegbu’s response is (understandably) corporate. However, Tesco does seem to using this project to actually take a step back and think about all of this, however complicated it might seem, and that has to be applauded.


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