Last updated: January 2015
Closing the door on HFCs
Fionnuala Walravens, Senior Campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, takes us through six years of climate reports that have helped change an industry.
If all of the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) leaked out of a typical supermarket system it would have the same climate change impact as one person taking 3,000 return flights to Australia. HFCs are a group of greenhouse gases that are used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems across the globe.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) began releasing the Chilling Facts reports after learning that HFC leakage was accounting for more than a quarter of supermarkets’ carbon footprint. The reports are now in their sixth year and show how the sustainability rhetoric of supermarkets matches up with reality.
Despite the catastrophic impacts of HFC use, supermarkets were turning a blind eye. EIA set about creating a campaign aimed at encouraging supermarkets to stop using HFCs. The format was simple, and hasn’t changed much to date. In 2008 we sent out a survey to UK retailers with a range of questions relating to their use of HFCs. We were shocked by the information we got back.
Disappointing first year
The findings of the first year were disappointing across the board. Just six retailers were trialling climate-friendly alternatives to HFCs with a meagre 14 stores amongst them using these alternatives. And leakage of HFCs in their systems was huge, often outweighing all the emissions associated with powering the refrigeration equipment. Marks and Spencer came first for setting some modest targets.
Waitrose was caught off guard, seemingly doing little to address the problem, and found itself bottom of the major players. Most disappointing were the discounters Iceland, Lidl and Aldi. They came last due to their failure to participate and share any information regarding their corporate social responsibility practices.
Second year progress being made
Once the media spotlight began to shine on the issue, many retailers responded by recognising the need to move away from HFCs. The second report saw some significant steps forward. Waitrose, keen to keep up its ethical image, had been busy and was ready to commit to going HFC-free in new stores.
Sainsbury’s followed suit and committed to going HFC-free across its entire estate, setting an ambitious target of 135 stores by 2014. This was smashed when the company opened its 250th HFC-free store earlier this year. Tesco fell short of committing to go HFC-free in new stores but did manage to set targets for the roll-out of HFC-free stores.
Lidl also got on board, participated in the survey and was commended for its use of HFC-free freezers. Aldi remained at the bottom of the pile for failing to participate again, although it did score some points for an HFC-free trial store.
Third year: clear commitments
By Chilling Facts three it was becoming apparent which retailers were committed to going HFC-free. Many of the big names such as Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer were topping the leader board. Whilst its competitors could see the future direction of refrigeration, one major player was rapidly descending the ranks.
Asda was determined to continue using climate-wrecking HFC refrigerants and seemed to be happy to sit back and let other retailers address the technical challenges ahead. After raising our concerns and disappointment at Asda’s position in Chilling Facts three they decided to stop participating, hoping the problem would go away. Three years on and Asda is still failing to roll out HFC free refrigeration.
Year 4: European retailers included
Criticised for falling behind the pack, focusing on developing a hybrid technology which combines HFCs and climate-friendly alternatives, Morrisons shied away a year later and wasn’t featured in the fourth Chilling Facts. By now the campaign had expanded to cover a range of European retailers in order to assess whether progress made in the UK was part of a broader change. Finally Aldi got on board through its head office in Germany.
On the whole our findings showed that the rest of Europe was behind the UK, except for Swiss retailers who were way ahead, having embraced HFC-free technology due to stricter environmental regulations. Not only were Swiss retailers cutting HFC use but their new systems had a double climate benefit as they also used less energy.
Year 5: Green cooling leaders
Chilling Facts five highlighted a core group of Green Cooling Leaders – retailers that EIA felt were making an impressive effort to reduce the climate impact of their refrigeration. These included Aldi Sud, The Co-operative, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose. Aldi’s elevated status came from the impressive roll out of HFC free refrigeration the retailer is engaging in across its German and Swiss stores.
However it is yet to make any progress in the UK, despite having one HFC-free trial store since 2009. This is inexcusable given its rapid expansion in the UK and its clear success with the technology in its German stores. We were pleased, however, to have a new retailer join the campaign: Musgrave Group which owns Budgens. They told us of their increasing use of HFC-free freezer units and have since announced a trial of HFC-free fridges.
2014: M&S loses status
Having consistently led the pack, we were disappointed that this year Marks and Spencer lost its Green Leadership status. Despite early promises to go HFC-free, EIA is concerned these plans are stagnating and the retailer is instead focusing on hybrid HFC-based technologies.
Although it didn’t quite manage to earn Green Leadership status this year, Lidl’s commitment to going HFC-free in all its new European stores suggests that this discounter is taking the problem seriously across its entire estate. And finally we had something positive to say about Iceland which, after six years of being badgered, are now trialling HFC free fridges!
The EIA: spotlight on HFCs
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is an independent charity founded in 1984 to fight environmental crime. It has developed innovative and effective investigative methods for defending the environment and has played a key role in the fight against climate change.
At a European level, it successfully campaigned for stricter curbs on fluorinated gases in the new F-Gas Regulation, adopted in March 2014, a deal which will see the supply of HFCs in the European Union (EU) dramatically cut over the next 15 years. At the international level, EIA continues to be the most active NGO calling for a global HFC phase-out.
Shut that door!
Whilst many supermarkets have shown willing to address their carbon footprint by using climate-friendly refrigerants, they have been reluctant to address the energy used in these systems by putting doors on their fridges. Can you imagine how much energy would be wasted if you left the fridge door open at home? It’s no different in a supermarket. In fact, some estimates suggest that one per cent of the UK’s energy bill could be saved if the top five UK retailers put doors on their fridges.
Information given to EIA by retailers who are adopting fridge doors shows that, on average, they use about a third less energy. But despite open fridges creating Arctic conditions for customers, retailers are reluctant to put doors on. This is mainly due to the fear that a glass door might stop some of our impulse buys. But perhaps supermarkets are looking at it the wrong way. If their shops weren’t so cold then perhaps we would be willing to linger a little longer by the fromage frais!
Evidence from European retailers, including Carrefour, suggests that fears of sales drops are red herrings, and the cost savings associated with reduced energy use can be substantial. In the UK, Tesco and The Co-operative are making some efforts,however the sector as a whole is dragging its heels. Clearly, this is something which urgently needs addressing and, if British supermarkets are unwilling to change, then the Government should step in and legislate.