Supermarket ethics: issues old and new

design-2381160__340Pre-Christmas shopping is stressful. Finding the right balance between pleasing the loved ones, staying within the budget, and getting all that shopping done just in time is quite a task. For an ethically minded buyer who is not willing to compromise on moral concerns even (or especially) with her festive shopping, planning the celebration menu and going through a long grocery list is even more challenging. These were my thoughts while flipping through the latest issue of the Ethical Consumer magazine. In a series of articles, it looks at the major UK food retailers and their ethics with respect to a variety of concerns, from supply chain management to refrigeration system. Having learned a lot of interesting information myself, I thought I’d highlight some of the issues  in the hope that this will help perplexed shoppers to decide where it would be best to stock up for Christmas.

The issue of fair trade and banana price wars among supermarkets is a re-current theme in the Ethical Consumer. Once again, the magazine praises Co-operative, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose for selling exclusively fair trade certified bananas, while Tesco and Asda continue to be the target of the campaign for fair banana pricing (only 10 percent of their bananas currently bear a  fair trade mark). Want fairly traded bananas on your festive table? Make sure to check the label and visit to send a message to your local Asda or Tesco store to urge them to source more of their fruits on fair-trade terms.

For all environmentally concerned, Ethical Consumer offers an interesting piece on the carbon impact of supermarkets’ refrigeration and cooling systems. I was surprised to know that more than 25% of retailers’ carbon footprint is due to the leakage of HFCs (hydrafluorocarbons) – a type of greenhouse gases that is widely used in fridges and freezers. In 2008, Ethical Consumer conducted a survey of the UK supermarkets to reveal the extent of the problem – back then, no retailer apart from Marks and Spencer was found to be taking any active steps to address the issue, while Iceland, Lidl and Aldi simply refused to participate and share any information altogether. In the following 6 years, significant progress has been achieved, and by now all major supermarkets have committed to switch to less harmful refrigerants – Sainsbury’s is currently HFC-free across 250 of its stores and even Iceland is finally trying out more climate-friendly fridges. However, some industry players are still lagging behind – Aldi UK continues to rely on climate-wrecking refrigeration, despite successfully replacing it with more environmentally benign alternatives in its Germany-based stores .

Those whom the horsemeat scandal and the most recent news about campylobacter contamination of fresh chicken have kept concerned about supermarkets’ supply chain management, unfortunately, have more reasons for distress. As Ethical Consumer reports, some of UK’s biggest supermarket chains, i.e. Aldi, Co-op, Tesco, Asda, Iceland and Morrison’s, have fallen under the fire of criticism for sourcing their seafood from the Thai prawn farming giant CP Foods, which was found to buy fishmeal from slave-manned fishing boats. Guardian has conducted its own investigation of the issue and published a heart-breaking article detailing the story of modern-day slavery in the food industry. The retailers implicated in the scandal were quick to issue statements decrying human trafficking and exploitation and expressing strong commitments to ethical trading. And yet, cheap seafood produced with slave labour can still be found on the shelves of their stores. Consumers may therefore want to be especially cautious when choosing seafood to ensure that their celebratory prawn cocktails are slavery-free (checking the origin of the produce to avoid Thailand fisheries and going for Marine Stewardship Council labelled products where possible are some simple measures to take).

As all consumers are looking for ways to cut their grocery bills and stay within their Christmas budgets, an article on the ethics of UK’s most popular discount stores Aldi and Lidl comes especially handy. Due to the significant growth of their market shares, the discounters will no longer remain in the shadow and will be continuously scrutinised with respect to a variety of ethical issues. For a start, The Ethical Consumer paid a visit to the Aldi and Lidl stores in Portsmouth and examined their aisles and shelves in search for ethical goods. Both retailers have realised the growing importance of food ethics for the UK consumers and launched fair-trade and organic ranges, although customers are not exactly spoilt for choice. Among available items are a limited choice of such fair-trade staples as tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate and bananas, free-range chicken and eggs (but not organic), MSC certified salmon and cod. All in all, the discounters are clearly tapping into the trend towards responsible shopping, and even the most avid bargain-hunters now have an expanding range of ethical foods to choose from.

Finally, for those who is determined to avoid high-street retailers altogether, Ethical Consumer highlights so-called alternative supermarket networks which unite food retail outlets with a focus on environmental and social ethics. The article specifically looks at two such networks – Whole Food Action which links independent health food shops and the Food Assembly focusing on reviving the tradition of farmer’s markets. The review of the networks’ concept and efforts is encouraging and promises a bright future to the ethical food business.

To conclude, consumers will have a lo to think about when planning their grocery shopping trips in this last week before Christmas. More so, if what they want to share with their guests is not only festive meal and mood, but important ethical and moral values as well.


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