Ethical shopping guide to Supermarkets, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Supermarkets, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

How do the ethics stack up at your favourite supermarket?


The guide includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 13 supermarkets
  • Best buy recommendations
  • A-Z of policies, from Animal Testing to Palm Oil
  • Spotlight on Tesco


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Score Ratings

Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


Score table

The score table shows simple numerical ratings out of 20 for each product. The higher the score, the more ethical the company.

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Full Scorecard

The Full Scorecard shows the 'black marks' for each product, by each of the 17 negative categories. The bigger the mark, the worse the score. So for example a big black circle under 'Worker Rights' shows that the company making this product has been severely criticised for worker abuses.

Scores start at 14.  A small circle means that half a mark is deducted, a large circle means that a full mark is deducted.

Marks are added in the positive categories of Company Ethos and the five Product Sustainability columns (O,F,E,S,A).  A small circle  means that half a mark is added, a large circle means that a full mark is added.

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Best Buys

as of April 2016

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that company ratings on the score table may have changed since this report was written.


Co-op and Marks & Spencer are the best of the supermarkets covered on our score table.


In most cases your local independent grocery or wholefood shop will be the most ethical place to shop.


to buy

Image: Waitrose


Image: Abel and Cole


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Related Content

Special Report: Supermarkets under the Spotlight

Supermarkets: ethics under the spotlight


Supermarkets are a staple ingredient in many of our lives. The incredible convenience and cheap prices of these shops are a pull that is hard to resist, even for those of us who feel they embody all that is wrong with our industrialised food system. 

Today we spend proportionally less of our income on food than at any time in history. 

With supermarkets at the powerful, consumer end of the supply chain, the price of our cheap food – and a whole range of other products – is often paid by the producers.

Even in the UK, farmers find it hard to cover costs; when supply chains span continents and involve commodity markets, the reality at the production end may be as extreme as forced child labour. This is found extensively in both cotton and cocoa production. It is often via supermarkets that such ingredients find their way into our homes.



For companies with a business model that depends on purchasing from commodity markets – or purchasing from those that purchase from commodity markets – the only credible way of addressing serious problems in supply chains is to buy certified products. Even then, there are no guarantees: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Forest Stewardship Council are both examples of certification schemes that have been roundly criticised for certifying unethical production units.

Nevertheless, certified products and ingredients are an improvement on those of which it is not possible to trace to their origin, those which could have been produced under harsh conditions with few possibilities for redress.



Ethical Consumer Scoretable


In conducting the research for this Product Guide, Ethical Consumer has assessed the full range of products sold by the companies featured and reviewed the strategies in place to mitigate risk of abuses in supply chains. Where there are inadequate policies, companies are marked down in the relevant categories.

In addition, we have applied our usual ethical filters. This includes checking the mainstream media, and news from campaign groups, an assessment of company tax policies, looking for operations in oppressive regimes, recording political donations and checking for membership of corporate lobby groups.

Given the size and supply chains of the companies in this guide, it is perhaps little wonder that they are clustered around the bottom of the Ethiscore table. The research has also produced the counter-intuitive result that Booths, which has virtually no Corporate Social Responsibility reporting, sits towards the top of the table. This is due to its limited own-brand product offerings.


A-Z of Ethical Policies



Animal Rights |  Climate Change |  Cocoa |  Cotton |  Fish |  Living Wage |  Palestine |  Palm Oil |  Timber



Animal Rights


All companies covered lose a full mark in this category for selling factory-farmed meat. In addition, we have looked at the non-food animal products and ingredients sold, including leather, silk, merino wool, and down and feathers.


Bee welfare

Our Product Guide to honey, produced in collaboration with Friends of the Earth, uncovered a number of inhumane practices in industrial honey production, such as clipping wings and the culling of hives after honey is collected. We also found that few organisations were putting pressure on companies to restrict these practices.

Co-op, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have all had programmes to assist bee populations which focus on biodiversity and/or habitat. However, none of the companies in this guide have policies to address bee welfare in their own supply chains; we urge supermarkets to include bees in their animal welfare strategies.

Animal testing

Companies losing half a mark in this category have robust non-animal testing policies for their own brand supply chains but sell branded products from other companies which conduct animal testing. Those that lose a full mark have no or inadequate policies for their own-brand products and ingredients.

Animal welfare

Ranking company performance for animal welfare strategies is a big and complex undertaking. Fortunately, the Business Benchmark for Farm Animal Welfare now does this annually. The project has been a key driver in pushing companies to improve their practices in recent years. 

Companies in this guide have been ranked in the following tiers by the BBFAW.

  • Tier 1- Leadership: Marks & Spencer, Waitrose
  • Tier 2 – Integral to Business Strategy: Co-op, Tesco
  • Tier 3 – Established but work to be done: Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda 
  • Tier 4 – Making progress on implementation: Aldi, Lidl

(Not ranked: Booths, Spar, Iceland, Ocado)


See our article on Animal Welfare in our Special Report into Supermarkets for more information on the BBFAW. 



Climate Change

Companies may talk a lot about what they are doing in the area of climate change but often it is a lot of hot air.



Below we present the information we have found on issues we consider key: whether companies provide meaningful carbon disclosure (that is, absolute Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions); whether they have reduced emissions and future targets to reduce emissions, and whether they produce or buy any renewable energy.



  • 94% of electricity used in 2015 from renewable energy sources. Solar panels at all eight UK Regional Distribution Centres and 240 shops, total 600,000 panels.
  • Absolute GHG emissions disclosed.
  • Performance 2014 – reduction in absolute GHG by 8.6% despite increase in number of stores.
  • Target: reduce greenhouse gas emissions per square metre of sales area by 30% by the year 2020 against the year 2012.



  • 3.8 MW of solar PV installed.
  • Absolute GHG emissions not disclosed.
  • Performance 2015 – 19% energy reduction intensity from 2010 base. 
  • Target: 30% renewable energy by 2020.
  • 100 stores have charging points for electric cars.



Has made public a comprehensive breakdown of the carbon footprint of its direct operations and those in its supply chain (such as meat and dairy and flown or hot-housed vegetables) for 2013-14.



  • 2015 – sourced 99% of its electricity from renewables including 15% from its own renewable energy projects. 
  • Target: generate the equivalent of 25% of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2017.
  • Target: reduce its direct greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020 compared to 2006.
  • Absolute GHG emissions disclosed.



  • Achieved an absolute reduction in carbon emissions of 8% by 2015 (base year unclear, may be 2007).
  • Absolute GHG emissions not disclosed.



  • No carbon disclosure or targets.


Marks & Spencer

  • Claims to be the only major retailer in the world with carbon neutral global operations.
  • Has reduced CO2e emissions by 23% since baseline year 2006/7.
  • 2016 – 100% of electricity purchased for UK and Ireland stores and offices from renewable sources.
  • Absolute GHG emissions disclosed.



  • 23.6% absolute reduction in carbon emissions since 2005.
  • Target: 30% absolute reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (2006 baseline)
  • Absolute GHG emissions not disclosed.



  • Disclosed GHG emissions for three consecutive years to 2014/15. 



  • Renewable energy infrastructure across its estate includes 170,000 solar panels, 98 biomass boilers and 27 Ground Source Heat Pumps. 
  • 2016 – 0.3% lower operational carbon emissions against 2005/06 baseline, with 51% growth in sales area.
  • Target: by 2020, reduce carbon emissions by 30% absolute and 65% relative (to 2005).
  • Absolute GHG emissions not disclosed.



  • 2016 reduced net carbon intensity per sq. ft. of retail and distribution floor space by 1.8% compared to 2015, and 41.7% since 2006/07.
  • In 2015/16 generated 10,000 MWh of electricity from own solar and wind power investments and in 2016 invested a further £8 million in solar power in Thailand.
  • Target: to halve carbon emissions per square foot of stores and distribution centres by 2020. 
  • Absolute GHG emissions disclosed.


Waitrose (John Lewis Partnership)

  • Has achieved 57.3% reduction in carbon intensity (tonnes per £million sales) against 2010 levels.
  • Target: 65% reduction by 2020/21.
  • Purchased renewable electricity since 2011 (quantities not disclosed).


See our feature on HFCs in our Special Report into Supermarkets. 




The problem of child labour in West African cocoa production – sometimes involving slavery and trafficking – first hit the headlines 15 years ago. Evidence suggests that the response from chocolate companies, retailers and the international community has been woefully inadequate: research has found that 2.1 million children were engaged in inappropriate forms of child labour in Ivory Coast and Ghana in the 2013-14 growing season – a 21% increase in just five years.

Image: cocoa


We have marked companies down in the Workers’ Rights category if they sell own-brand products containing uncertified cocoa, on the basis that 15 years is long enough to get their supply chains in order. We looked for Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certification. Lidl was the only company not to be marked down. 

In the UK, 56% of the cocoa in the company’s own-label chocolates, biscuits, seasonal confectionery, and products with more than 10% cocoa, is certified. Target: 100% certified by 2020.

Target: All cocoa in Co-op brand products will be sourced on Fairtrade terms by 27 May 2017. Block chocolate Fairtrade certified since 2002 (a pioneer at the time). All own brand choclate confectionery is Fairtrade.

Lidl UK: 100% certified.

Marks & Spencer: 38% cocoa certified by the Fairtrade Foundation, Rainforest Alliance, Soil Association (organic) or UTZ. Target: 95% from verified sustainable sources by April 2017.

Sainsbury’s: “Many” own brand products contain certified cocoa according to the company. Target: Sustainably sourced cocoa by 2020.


Tesco: Target: 100% cocoa responsibly sourced by 2018.


Waitrose: Nearly all own-brand block chocolate Fairtrade certified. No public deadline to certify all cocoa products; claims to be working on it.

Asda and Morrisons: 
Some certified products but no public commitments.

Booths, Iceland, Ocado: No evidence of certified products or policies.






Cotton is a problematic crop for three key reasons. Forced labour is rife in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, a source of much of Europe’s cotton. It is also highly chemically intensive, covering 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land yet using 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other major crop. Thirdly, genetically modified cotton accounted for 75% of cotton grown in 2015.


Image: Uzbek cotton farmer


In India, the introduction of GM cotton has been linked to spiralling farmer debt and a huge wave of suicides– over the last 20 years 290,000 farmers have committed suicide.

Companies selling own-brand cotton products are therefore marked down in three categories if they have inadequate policies: Workers’ Rights, Pollution and Toxics and Controversial Technologies.

Asda: Wal-Mart has signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s Pledge Against Forced Child Labor in the Uzbek Cotton Sector.

Uzbek cotton is banned in its products. Target: share of textiles made up of organic cotton 10% by the end of 2017. Phasing out the use of (genetically modified) Bt Cotton in the production of own-brand labels.

Marks & Spencer:
No cotton from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Regular audits of suppliers conducted to ensure compliance. 

In 15/16, 42% cotton sourced from sustainable sources, defined as Better Cotton Initiative, Fairtrade, Organic or recycled. Target: 70% from sustainable sources by 2020.

“On the use of GM cotton our position is neutral – we leave it to the farmer to decide which is best for them.”

no cotton from Uzbekistan. Target: 100% sustainable cotton by 2020.

Tesco: No Uzbek cotton. Signed Responsible Sourcing Network’s cotton pledge in 2014.

Waitrose: No Uzbek cotton, but the position of John Lewis Partnership is unclear.

Target: by year end 2020/21 50% of cotton in own-brand products will come from sustainable sources.

Aldi, Morrisons: No policies.

Booths, Co-op Ocado, Spar:
Not applicable. 




The sustainability of fish sources is an issue of increasing concern to consumers. Those who want to choose certified sustainable, traceable wild seafood can opt for Marine Stewardship Council certified products. The organisation’s latest league table, published in March 2017, shows a big difference in the availability of certified seafood in supermarkets, as the chart below shows.


Table: MSC range


See our ethical shopping guide to Tinned Tuna for more ethical issues surrounding the fishing industry. 


Living Wage


Last time we covered supermarkets, in 2015, we found that none were offering staff in the UK the real Living Wage. We also put the spotlight on the discounters and asked whether the cheap prices at Aldi and Lidl came with a heavier ethical cost.

Interestingly, it is on this issue that Lidl and Aldi have made a stand: at the end of 2016, Lidl announced a wage hike for its UK staff bringing the lowest paid up to the Living Wage Foundation’s minimum – £8.45 outside of London and £9.75 in the capital. Two weeks later Aldi matched its London rate and pushed theirs up higher for outside London, to £8.53.

The new rate beats the Government’s national ‘Living Wage’ (criticised for not meeting the cost of living) of £7.20 an hour, which will go up to £7.50 in April. It is 91p an hour more than Tesco pays, and 87p an hour more than Sainsbury’s.

Other retailers have responded that their package of entitlements, such as payment during breaks (which Lidl does not do), enhanced sick and holiday pay, discounts and pensions, boost workers’ pay above headline rates.




Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Tesco now all have policies not to source from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Waitrose says that its produce “comes from internationally recognised (pre-1967) borders” but the position of John Lewis Partnership is unclear.




Palm Oil

Deforestation associated with palm oil production in South East Asia and, increasingly, West Africa is also a major issue of concern for consumers. Below we present supermarkets’ headline figures for the proportion of palm oil products (palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm oil derivatives) used in 2015 that was certified sustainable by the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil. 


Image: Palm Oil


Ethical Consumer’s rating, reflected in the column on the table, incorporates other factors, and companies need to demonstrate additional best practice in order to achieve a ‘best’ rating. This is largely in recognition of the problems with the RSPO and some plantations it has certified. We also favour segregated sources as these are preferable to non-linear supply chain certification mechanisms (mass balance and Book and Claim).

Aldi: 93% of the palm oil products used by the company was certified by the RSPO in 2015 and 16% of this was through a segregated mechanism.

100% palm oil RSPO certified with more than half coming from segregated sources.

Co-op: 100% of palm oil products certified by the RSPO and 53% segregated.


Iceland: Limited commitment to remove palm oil as ingredient. Request suppliers “seek supplies from RSPO certified sources as these become commercially available.”


Lidl: 100% palm oil products certified, not possible to tell percentage segregated as figures not provided.


Marks & Spencer: 100% palm oil products certified by the RSPO and 51% segregated. Company gained best rating due to additional positive initiatives: it expected zero deforestation commitments to apply to all the palm oil produced or traded by importers and it asked its suppliers to report annually on where their palm oil came from.

Morrisons: 98% palm oil products certified by the RSPO and 45% through a segregated mechanism.

Sainsbury’s: 100% palm oil products certified by the RSPO and 60% segregated.

Tesco (UK operations only): 100% palm oil products certified by the RSPO and 68% segregated.


Waitrose: 100% palm oil products certified by the RSPO and 64% segregated. Company gained best rating due to additional positive initiatives: Buying Greenpalm certificates from smallholder projects; ‘zero deforestation’ commitment; traceability to mills.


Booths, Ocado, Spar: No public policies.



Timber and derived products


The production of timber and derived products is an obvious driver of global deforestation. As with palm oil, Ethical Consumer’s rating looks beyond the use of certified products; below we present the key information from each company. 


Aldi: In 2016, over half of products in the UK containing paper or wood were PEFC- or FSC-certified or 100% recycled. Target: 100% certified by 2020.


Asda: Target: all timber and timber products from sustainable sources by 2020. 


Co-op: In 2015, 82.5% of timber-derived Co-op own brand products sold were FSC-certified and 12.5% came from recycled post-consumer waste. Target (undated): 100% certified.


Lidl: No figures disclosed. Company says: “We source virgin pulp from certified sources (FSC, PEFC) for all our hygiene paper products, soft beverage cartons and all communication materials. We are continuing to increase the proportion of our other products and packaging sourced from certified sources.”


Marks & Spencer: 100% responsibly sourced – goods for resale and also in packaging, marketing, etc. 72% FSC-certified. All suppliers required to acknowledge the right of indigenous people and rural communities to give or withhold their Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) before new logging rights were allocated or plantations developed.

Morrisons: 16% of own brand home and leisure products FSC-certified or equivalent; 88% of own-brand household and beauty products FSC or recycled. Target: 100% sustainable by 2020.


Sainsbury’s: 93% of wood used in own-brand products in 2014/15 (excluding nappies) was from recycled, PEFC- or FSC-Certified sources with FSC making up 78% and FSC recycled 9%. Target: all paper/timber in own-brand products from sustainable sources by 2020.


Tesco: 59% of timber sales FSC-certified. Target: all wood-fibre materials in products will be from recycled sources or certified to FSC or PEFC standard by 2020.


Waitrose: 95% own-brand timber and paper products sustainably sourced (certified or recycled). John Lewis – 19% of own-brand products certified sustainable and 4% verified responsible (non-controversial sources and pre-and post-consumer waste).

Target: 100% responsible and sustainable sources by 2020.  




Company behind the brand

Tesco Plc is the UK’s largest retailer with close to 30% share of the grocery market and the 9th largest retailer in terms of revenue in the world.

In January 2016, the Groceries Code Adjudicator found that Tesco had seriously “breached the legally binding code governing the grocery market” after the supermarket had delayed payments worth millions of pounds to suppliers.

At the end of a two-year investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for overstating its profits, it agreed to pay a fine of £129 million to avoid prosecution in March 2017.

See our detailed company profile on Tesco. 


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