What Role Do Retailers Have To Play In Food Sustainability?

When everyone works together on protecting the environment, incredible results can be achieved, but the first step is knowing what each person and each organisation on the food chain needs to do to help.

Restauranteurs source locally, invest in sustainable wholesale aprons and manage the carbon footprints their businesses create overall, whilst also encouraging consumers to make healthy and environmentally conscious decisions through education.

However, this is also true for food retailers, who in some cases sell to both restaurant managers and their consumers.

A report by the French chapter of the Climate Action Network expresses considerable concern that supermarkets do not adequately empower their customers to make sustainable decisions and access sustainably sourced foods.


Cultivating Industrial Production

The CAN report ranked eight French supermarket chains on a range of sustainability factors, ultimately providing a mark out of 20, although no supermarket ranked higher than half of this.

This, the CAN concluded, highlighted that a major barrier to more sustainable diets is the shops where people buy food and restaurants buy ingredients.

With a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions coming from food and beverage production, and 66 per cent of this through animal products, there is a link between the foods major retailers sell and their environmental impact.

Part of the problem they had was that the ways in which shelves were stocked encouraged the production of what was described as “industrial” production of meat and dairy, with less than ten per cent of meat on French supermarket shelves being organic.

It also noted that whilst there were plant-based prepared meals on sale, they accounted for only eight per cent of the ready meals available, with the remainder containing either meat or fish.

It also noted that a considerable proportion of advertising campaigns and promotional deals encouraged the purchase of meat and dairy, which as noted above was primarily based on industrial production.

This stands in contrast, CAN argues, with the four-fifths of shoppers who want to eat more responsibly, and over three-quarters who are willing to eat less meat in favour of plant-based ingredients.

The argument they make, therefore is that supermarkets are stripping away a consumer’s ability to make sustainable purchase decisions, either through lack of product availability, lack of knowledge of the benefits of a plant-based diet and through large mark-ups on sustainable products.


Top-Down Culpability

The report does not entirely place the blame on retailers themselves but describes it as a logical consequence of what the CAN describes as a “flawed” regulatory framework.

This framework empowers supermarkets over consumers, allowing them to exploit farmers, sell sustainability at a premium and promote harmful products.

It also argues that the government can and should do more to promote sustainable farming and provide information to help consumers make the right decisions, including environmental impact information, farming methods and only allowing organic and Label Rouge products to be advertised.

Whilst some elements of the report are specific to the French marketplace, there are also wider issues seen in other nations and the world food industry as a whole, and it highlights how important every step of the retail journey is for sustainability.

March 17, 2023 — Jacob Blakey