Ethical product guide to Supermarkets, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical product 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.

This guide includes:

  • ethical and environmental ratings for the 7 biggest UK supermarket chains
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • their policies on cotton, palm oil, occupied territories, genetic engineering and precious jewellery
  • the 'string' supply chain track and trace system


Part of a Sector Report on the Food Industry.

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Best Buys

as of March/April 2013

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that these companies will not always come out top on the scoretable.

With its mutual structure and above average Corporate Responsibility approach, The Co-operative is a clear Best Buy.

Marks & Spencer’s ground-breaking commitment to full traceability in their non-food supply chains positions it as a global ethical leader.

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

Ethical Business
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Seven Supermarkets


Leonie Nimmo puts the spotlight on a few key issues in supermarkets’ supply chains.


In this guide, we’re putting the spotlight on the responses of the UK’s favourite seven supermarkets to a few issues: cotton, produce from illegal settlements, genetic engineering, palm oil and precious jewellery.

Supermarkets are the monolithic middlemen that sit between producers and consumers, extracting the bulk of the value out of supply chains, squeezing suppliers and cajoling consumers into buying ever more. They are key operational lynch-pins of the system that sees mountains of food wasted, money flowing out of communities, local businesses destroyed and agricultural workers in the Global South and the UK alike working for poverty wages.

With their combined buying power, British supermarkets have a huge impact on global supply chains, whether they pro-actively take a stand on issues or remain silent and continue to source and sell as usual. It is via supermarkets that some of the world’s most problematic commodities find their way into our homes.

But as corporate social responsibility (CSR) develops, civil society has an increasing capacity to have an effect on corporate decisions, and at times companies can serve to fill a void left by a failure in international or national governance.

Take Uzbekistan. The country has an atrocious human rights record, but its strategic importance as an overground route to and from Afghanistan virtually guarantees that it will remain untouched by international sanctions, at least for the foreseeable future. However, the state’s policy of mass forced labour during the cotton harvest is unacceptable for consumers who may end up wearing the cotton, as well as companies that have policies forbidding the use of child and forced labour in their supply chains. Through taking concrete steps to reject Uzbek cotton, companies featured in this report are effectively enacting civil society sanctions.

On one level, this could be viewed as a strange manifestation of participatory democracy, with consumers and campaigners exerting pressure for change via corporations. But it also demands careful analysis, given that it bypasses ‘ordinary’ democratic processes and regulations, and that action is down to the choices made in powerful, global institutions that are largely unaccountable.

Some companies responded to the Uzbek cotton issue by claiming that the changeable, complex nature of supply chains made it all but impossible to make any provenance guarantees, a sentiment echoed by many industries, from palm oil to gold mining. Whilst campaigners have always disputed this, on a practical level the problem has been partially addressed by segregated, certified supply chains, such as Fairtrade. But these are cumbersome, and inadequate in the sense that they cannot deal with the provenance of everything else.


String track and trace system


A new player has arrived on the scene. String, developed by British company Historic Futures, appears to be quietly revolutionising supply chain management systems and to have significantly boosted the viability of fully traceable supply chains across all sectors.

The prospect of traceability has significant implications for all of the issues covered in this report: cotton, palm oil, produce from illegally occupied territories, genetically modified food and animal feed and precious jewellery.

String is a web-based supply chain track and trace system. It was used by Tesco as part of a programme to eliminate Uzbek cotton, and if all goes according to plan it will enable Marks and Spencer to fulfil its pledge of full traceability for all its non-food products. Asda’s parent company Walmart has used it to develop a line of precious jewellery where each individual item can be tracked back to the mine it came from, and it was rolled out for the Olympic games last year, when the system allowed the metals used for the medals to be fully traceable. The Forest Stewardship Council is changing from its current Chain of Custody system to a String-based one to streamline the process of tracking supply chains of sustainable timber.

String connects each participant along a supply chain through an automated information gathering process. Companies are asked to disclose information about the suppliers of the different elements of a product they are assembling. Those suppliers are then also sent information requests, and so on, until the sources are identified. It is a simple system, but one capable of incorporating more complex information, which can be used for other purposes, such as carbon footprinting.

Historic Futures Managing Director Tim Wilson says that, through using it, companies are able to address the dichotomy of the fluid nature of supply chains and the increasing demand to demonstrate that products meet social or environmental specifications.





In 2005 the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) exposed mass child and forced labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Schools were shut down and children transported to makeshift camps under guard to work under hazardous conditions, sometimes losing up to three months of education. In June 2011 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that a million children were involved.(1) The children enabled different regions to meet central government-imposed quotas.

Uzbekistan is the world’s second biggest cotton exporter, and much of its crop ends up in Europe, usually via manufacturing industries in Asian countries where labour is cheap. European retailers had an acute responsibility to act on the issue. Ignoring the problem was tantamount to complicity.

Tesco and Marks & Spencer were among the first companies to ban Uzbek cotton in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Tesco’s 2009 CSR report states that it adopted a tracking system to trace country of origin, claiming to have proven “for the first time ever, that it is possible to trace the country of origin of conventional as well as Fairtrade cotton”. Its stated aim was to introduce the system across its UK cotton supply chain. In 2010, ‘String’ was said to have been rolled out to Bangladesh, China and Turkey, but by 2011, reference to the traceability mechanism, and Uzbekistan, had disappeared from the company’s literature. Tesco did not respond to Ethical Consumer’s request for an update.

Marks & Spencer told us that its Uzbek ban is written into its contractual terms and conditions with suppliers, and that it requires a country of origin declaration on fabric specifications.

Asda and its parent company Walmart have flip-flopped on the issue. In 2008 Asda claimed that full traceability was very difficult to achieve.(2) In 2011 it displayed a ban of Uzbek cotton on its website, but in January 2013 no trace of such a ban could be found. Walmart’s 2012 CSR report states that the company banned Uzbek cotton in 2008, but that “the nature of the industry makes it difficult to determine where cotton has been grown”.

Sainsbury’s told us that its consent to supply “explicitly forbids our suppliers from sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan”.

The Co-operative does not have policies on Uzbekistan but its Sound Sourcing Code of Conduct prohibits child labour. Its clothing section supplies the company with its uniforms, and does not trade with the public.

Morrisons bought Kiddicare in 2011, which sells a range of cotton products. No cotton sourcing policies have been found. Its Ethical Trading Code prohibits child labour.

The John Lewis Partnership owns Waitrose. Its 2009 and 2010 Sustainability Reports state that the company “started to map the provenance of the cotton used in the furnishing textiles from one of our suppliers... we are committed to applying the lessons learned from this work to the remainder of our cotton supply base, both in home and fashion”. No more recent information was provided.

Retailers have been attributed with forcing the hand of Uzbek government. In May 2009 it signed International Labour Organisation conventions committing the country to stop using child labour and in 2012, as in previous years, the government announced that school children would not participate in the harvest.

2012 reports indicated that the use of child labour decreased, but the government had “shifted the demographic” and continued the practice of forced labour.(3) Older children, university students, and adults including state employees, medical professionals and teachers, were forced into the fields on threat of financial or other penalties. Reportedly, employees for international companies including General Motors Uzbekistan were also sent to the fields.

Retailers need to stand firm on the issue of Uzbek cotton, and to categorically reject all forms of forced labour in their supply chains. This is particularly relevant in the case of Uzbekistan, where the foreign capital generated “does little if anything to benefit the people, but much to support a corrupt and brutal government”.(4)


Palm oil


The production of palm oil around the globe has resulted in widespread forest clearance and the displacement of people. We are finally starting to see an adequate response from supermarkets on this issue, but a lot of forest has been lost and people dispossessed in the time it has taken.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004. This created a mechanism for the production and transportation of palm oil certified as ‘sustainable’. But in 2009 WWF released a Buyers’ Scorecard, which showed that the vast majority (81%) of oil that had been certified was unsold.

This must have caused some embarrassment to the companies that proudly displayed RSPO membership in their CSR literature, and today the use of certified sustainable supplies has increased significantly. There are problems with the RSPO, but even critics agree that it is a forum worth engaging with.

An alternative to segregated supplies is the GreenPalm book and claim system. This allows companies to ‘offset’ their use of unsustainable palm oil by purchasing certificates placed on the market by sustainable producers that sold an equivalent sustainable volume.

Ethical Consumer recognises that segregated supplies are far preferable to the GreenPalm system. However, companies use palm oil not only in its pure form but also in a range of derivative forms such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Not all of these are available in segregated supplies. Furthermore, companies often do not disclose the split that they operate between segregated supplies and those covered by GreenPalm. We currently accept GreenPalm as equivalent to segregated under our rating system.

The Co-op, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Morrisons all use certified sustainable palm oil or GreenPalm certificates to cover 100% of their palm oil and palm oil derivative use. John Lewis disclosed the proportion of its palm oil that came from segregated sources (68%), which pushes it ahead of the curve on this issue.

Asda states that 20% of its palm oil comes from segregated sources and that the rest, including palm kernel oil, is covered by GreenPalm certificates. No mention was made of other derivatives. Walmart will “require sustainable sourced palm oil in all of our private-brand products globally by the end of 2015.”

Tesco has targets to only use 100% certified sustainable palm oil in its UK products by 2015. By 2012 it aimed to only source from an RSPO-certified system such as GreenPalm, but Ethical Consumer was unable to establish whether this target had been met. In 2011/12 “around 66% of the Tesco own-brand products that contain palm oil or its derivatives [complied] with our code of practice”. Tesco also says that it is “working to understand the barriers to purchasing sustainable palm oil in our non-UK markets”.

Sainsbury’s has sought to encourage conversion to sustainably produced palm oil through its supply chain. This was acknowledged as a progressive move by the Forest Footprint Disclosure project (see below), which awarded the company ‘Sector Leader’ for food and drug retailers. In 2011/12, half of the total palm oil used by Sainsbury’s came from sustainable certified sources, and the company aims for 100% in 2014. It has also taken the positive step of labelling palm oil where it is used, rather than just stating ‘vegetable oil’.

Although Tesco and Sainsbury’s have taken some positive steps, Ethical Consumer does not take into account future commitments to purchase sustainable palm oil, as the negative impacts of palm oil production have been apparent for the past decade. Companies that use any uncertified oil without remediation mechanisms such as GreenPalm lose marks in the climate change, habitats and resources and human rights categories of our scoring system.



Israeli settlement produce


Supermarkets remain divided on the issue of Israeli settlement produce, with Marks & Spencer and the Co-op refusing to source produce from the occupied Palestinian territories and other companies in this report continuing to do so. Most of the settlement produce in supermarkets in the UK is agricultural, from plantations in the Jordan Valley.

Israeli settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Palestinian territories of the West Bank are against international law and pose a major obstacle to peace in the region. Confiscating ever-increasing areas of land, in the West Bank they pose an array of threats to Palestinians.

Settlements range from paramilitary ‘outposts’, the inhabitants of which repeatedly attack Palestinians and burn their land, to well-established towns such as Ma’ale Adummim. These settlements deny nearby Palestinians access to natural resources, pollute the environment and entrench an apartheid system.

In January 2011, Who Profits, an Israeli human rights organisation which monitors the activities of transnational companies in the settlements, exposed the fact that Ma’ale Adummim was the home of the manufacturing base for SodaStream fizzy drinks makers. Palestinians were employed in the factory, but according to Who Profits “employment under occupation is always exploitative, resulting in routine violations of labor rights.”(5) The taxes paid by SodaStream on their profits, some generated by companies in this report, directly fund the settlement.

Marks & Spencer continues to be widely viewed as a Zionist company, but its actual policy with regard to Israel and the settlements is more progressive than most of the other companies in this report as it does not trade with Israeli settlements or source settlement produce. Their stated reason for taking this stance is practical rather than political: “We need to safely visit each factory or supplier location to check that our quality and ethical standards are maintained, and as we are not able to do so in these areas we are unable to source from them”.

The Co-operative ceased trade with Israeli settlements in the West Bank in 2008, and developed a Human Rights policy which also precluded it trading with other occupied territories, namely the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. In 2012 it made the surprising announcement that it would stop trading with Israeli businesses that sourced from the settlements.

In January 2013 Sainsbury’s told us “we do not currently source products from occupied territories in Israel”, somewhat missing the point. We await clarification.

The other companies in this report have no published policies on sourcing from Israeli settlements.


SodaStream stockists

Stockists listed on SodaStream website, January 2013: Asda, John Lewis, Tesco

Morrisons is reported to have sold SodaStream products in the past, but when contacted by Ethical Consumer in January 2013 did not find a record of such products for sale.



Genetic engineering


Public opposition to genetically modified food pushed all of the major supermarkets into removing it from their shelves around 1999. But they have failed to achieve commitments to phase out the use of GM feed for the animals from which their meat and dairy products have come.

A unilateral ban on GM poultry feed was implemented in 2001, but today only a few supermarkets – Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury’s – continue to make this pledge. In the intervening years other meat and dairy products have been increasingly likely to have come from GM-fed animals.

Whilst genetically modified food products must be labelled as such in Europe, there is currently no requirement for meat and dairy products from animals fed a genetically modified diet to be labelled. By choosing not to label voluntarily, supermarkets have actively worked against the future viability of segregated supply chains.

Supermarkets’ policies of shunting production costs up the supply chain have resulted in this issue being an increasingly divisive one between them and farmers, some of whom are calling on the remaining supermarkets with GM-free feed policies to abandon them.

Non-vegan consumers, it would seem, have remained largely ignorant that GM food has been a part of their diet for years.

Asda was the first supermarket to buckle on GM poultry feed and began allowing it in 2011, followed by Morrisons in March 2012. A GM Freeze opinion poll conducted after Asda’s u-turn found that an overwhelming 92% of Asda customers were in favour of labelling.

Brazil’s 2005 decision to legalise cultivation of GM crops led to a significant shift in supply. The proportion of soya that is GM jumped from 56% in 20056 to 79% in 2011.7 In 2012, DEFRA reported that the price of non-GM feed had increased by 25% in the previous 2 years.(8)

In December 2012, Farmers’ Weekly reported that non-GM supplies were at ‘breaking point’. The article quoted a spokesperson for agri-business giant Cargill, raising ‘serious concerns’ about the continuity of supply for the UK market. That’s ironic, as it’s probable that no company is more responsible for this situation than Cargill itself, which controls a sizeable chunk of the global soya market and is a grain processor and transporter as well as buyer and seller. The company has failed to build the future capacity necessary to segregate non-GM supplies.

Supermarkets’ commitment to the RoundTable on Responsible Soy also signals a worrying development on the issue of genetic engineering.

The field is open for a truly progressive supermarket to take the plunge and start labelling. In Germany meat and dairy from non-GM fed animals is now labelled, and Carrefour in France has taken this move voluntarily.

More information on genetic modification.


Forest Footprint Disclosure project


The companies in this report now all, to an extent, report on products in their supply chains which have an impact on the forests of the world. To some degree this trend can probably be attributed to the Forest Footprint Disclosure (FFD) project, an initiative backed by 77 institutional investors, which requests voluntary disclosure by companies on how they mitigate risks in relation to soya, timber, beef, palm oil and biofuels.

The information gathered about each company on a yearly basis is not publicly disclosed, rather it is shared with investors and an annual report on trends is published. The big drive from the FFD is to encourage companies to source from certified sustainable sources. On the face of it this is a positive move, but its weakness lies in the fact that it will only be as positive as the standards of the certifying body. In the case of soya, this causes more problems than it solves.

The industry-led Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) has been widely denounced by campaigners as a greenwashing exercise. Genetically-modified soya is allowed under the RTRS standards. The commitments of British supermarkets to sourcing soya responsibly are increasingly defined by a commitment to the RTRS. In line with the direction of travel expected by the FFD, it seems that they are gearing themselves towards purchasing RTRS certified supplies in the future, which deals a massive blow to the anti-GM campaign.



Precious jewellery


Tesco, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis all sell jewellery made with gold and diamonds. John Lewis is the only one of the three to have any policies on how these are sourced, stating that it will only permit diamonds with a Kimberley Process ‘conflict-free’ warrantee.

There are big problems with this mechanism, and Global Witness, a campaigning organisation instrumental in its founding, left the organisation in response to its dealing with the crisis in Zimbabwe in 2012. None of the retailers in this report are members of the Responsible Jewellery Council, or have signed up to the No Dirty Gold campaign.










6 ‘Briefing: Genetically modified animal feed’, Friends of the Earth, May 2006 





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