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How to shop ethically in the supermarket

Supermarkets have a poor reputation when it comes to ethics, but many of us rely on them in our busy day-to-day lives. 

We look at how to find the most ethical options in a supermarket, which supermarkets are best when it comes to vegan and plastic-free options, and how to shop ethically on a budget. 

Also see our guide to finding the most ethical supermarket.

75% of people in the UK visit the supermarket twice or more a week. Supermarkets can offer quick, low-cost options if we don’t have the time, cash or local alternatives to hunt out other choices.

But supermarkets are also linked to everything from animal testing to refusing fair pay to farmers.

5 top tips for ethical shopping in a supermarket

Here are our top tips for finding ethical options in the supermarket. We give all the information you need to take these steps in the sections below.

  1. Choose plant-based options: Cutting down on meat and dairy are great steps to take when it comes to the climate and animal rights, wherever you’re shopping.
  2. Buy ethical brands: Supermarket shelves are likely to include at least a few of the more ethical brands. By buying these you can be confident that some of your money will be going to better companies.
  3. Look for ethical certifications: Labels like Fairtade and Organic show that better environmental and human rights standards were met.
  4. Write to your supermarket: While we might not always have the option to shop elsewhere, calling on your supermarket to change can be a good way to use your consumer pressure. We list a few great campaigns and explain how you can use the Ethical Consumer website to contact companies.
  5. Find plastic-free options: Switching to unpackaged fruit and veg, baked goods or other items are small steps you can take to reducing plastic pollution from your groceries.

Vegan and flexitarian supermarket shopping

Cutting down on meat and dairy is one of the biggest ways you can reduce your personal carbon footprint. It can also help you avoid issues associated with factory farming, like the routine mutilation of animals or the cramped conditions they’re very often kept in.

Supermarkets stock many substitutes for meat and dairy. You might want to switch milk for a non-dairy alternative like soya or oat milk, or change butter for a vegan spread.

If you have time, the cheapest and healthiest way of reducing meat and dairy is to cook from scratch using ingredients like beans, tofu and lentils, rather than relying on processed vegan foods. Processed foods also have a higher carbon footprint than cooking a meal from scratch.

You could use lentils rather than mince for a bolognese sauce, or chickpeas rather than chicken in a curry. Our quick guide to cutting down on meat and dairy covers everything from recipes to understanding nutrition.

Own-brand vegan supermarket ranges

All major UK supermarkets have their own vegan ranges. These sell things like plant-based milks and cheeses, vegan ready meals and ice creams, and other useful vegan ingredients like tofu.

The main vegan supermarket ranges are listed below:

In 2021, uSwitch compared the number of vegan products in different supermarkets. It found that Asda sold 64 products compared to just 14 from Sainsbury’s, although with the boom in vegan living, the figures for both supermarkets are likely to have grown. (There is also a difference between supermarket own-brand ranges mentioned above, and the full range of items stocked, many of which will be suitable for vegans e.g. dried lentils. Aldi claims it has 700 vegan items currently, with plans to reach 1000 by the end of 2024, and Lidl have also announced a future increase in plant-based products.)

uSwitch also compared protein and salt content. Tesco’s Plant Chef beef style pieces had 30g of protein per 100g – the most of any vegan option and more than the same weight of chicken.

Which supermarket has the best vegan brands?

Supermarkets also sell branded vegan items like Linda McCartney’s meat-free sausages and burgers, Nush vegan cheeses, Alpro plant milks, and Oatly vegan ice cream.

Unfortunately, some vegan brands are owned by unethical companies. For example, Vivera is owned by JBS, the world’s largest meat company. JBS has been linked to massive deforestation in the Amazon and scores just 2.5 out of 20 in Ethical Consumer’s ratings.

You may therefore want to hunt out some more ethical vegan options. Tofoo, for example, is sold in many major supermarkets and receives a much higher score of 16.5. Check out Ethical Consumer’s shopping guides to find a few trustworthy vegan brands to look out for in your supermarket shop.

We checked how many ethical vegan options each supermarket stocked, by searching for our Best Buys for meat-free sausages and burgers, plant-based milks, plant-based spreads like vegan butter and vegan cheese in their online shops. M&S (via Ocado) had the most, followed by Waitrose. Aldi had none.

Ethical labels and certifications to look out for in the supermarket

There are a number of ethical certifications to look out for at the supermarket, which show better treatment of workers, the environment or animals involved.

Our article on food labelling has more information on these and other labels and certification schemes.

Four logos of certification schemes: fairtrade, Soil Association, Leaping Bunny, Vegan Society


Products like chocolate, sugar, bananas and tea and coffee can all be found fair trade. While there are a number of different labels that claim to show a product has been fairly traded, Fairtrade International’s is the strongest option, and you can find it on a wide range of products.

It shows that workers were fairly treated, and growers were paid a fair price. Fairtrade guarantees a fixed price for produce, which protects growers if markets crash or big buyers try to push prices down. Brands selling Fairtrade have to pay a small premium on top of the sale price, which growers’ cooperatives or estates decide how to spend on social or environmental benefits.

Several of the supermarkets sell some fair trade own-brand products such as own-brand tea and bananas. The Co-op is the UK’s largest retailer of Fairtrade products as well as the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade wine. All of the bananas it sells and the cocoa in all its products (including baked goods) are Fairtrade, making it easy to know you’re buying ethical options.

Read our article on fair trade and food to find out more about this.


Buying organic means that the produce or its ingredients were grown without any chemical pesticides or fertilisers. These chemicals are a major driver of biodiversity loss, pollute ecosystems and waterways, and are often made from fossil fuels.

If food is labelled as organic, it has to meet legally binding standards. For cosmetics or other non-food products though, there aren’t the same rules. Look for the Soil Association logo in the UK to find organic options.

Animal welfare certifications

Soil Association Organic is also the strongest option in the UK when it comes to animal welfare for meat, eggs and dairy. It guarantees more space for animals to roam than free range does, and ensures that animals aren’t subject to painful mutilations like having their tails cut or their beaks trimmed.

Unfortunately, free range doesn’t provide the strong assurance we might expect. For example, nine free range chickens can occupy just 1 metre of floor space. That’s like 14 human adults living in a one-room flat. Our shopping guide to eggs and egg alternatives has more information about free range and other terms used for eggs.

Our article on animal rights in the food industry covers a number of certification schemes and labels for fish and animals, including the Red Tractor label which we explain is very weak and not worth looking for.

Leaping Bunny Cruelty-Free

Cosmetics, health and cleaning products sold in supermarkets may be funding animal testing. Although finished products can’t be tested on animals in the UK, lots of companies use animal-tested ingredients or sell in countries where animal testing is allowed or is even mandatory by law (like China).

The Leaping Bunny certification is the strongest label if you want to ensure you are choosing cruelty-free options. However, not all Leaping Bunny products are vegan as they may contain animal ingredients. Read our article about animal testing certification schemes to find out more.

The Vegan Society

Lots of food products are now marked as vegetarian or vegan.

However, it can be much harder to tell if a cosmetic or cleaning product includes animal ingredients. There are a whole host of ingredients that have innocent sounding names but could have been produced from animal products – such as collagen and lanolin.

If a product is marked with the Vegan Society logo, you know that it does not include any of these.

How ethical are supermarket own-brand certifications?

In recent years, a growing number of supermarkets have created their own ethical ‘certifications’. Shops like Sainsbury’s have ditched Fairtrade in favour of their own sustainability claims.

These labels may show that workers and producers in supply chains are receiving better conditions than in the case of un-labelled own brand products. For example, Sainsbury’s Fairly Traded standard guarantees a minimum price for producers, equivalent to that of Fairtrade. A minimum price helps to alleviate poverty – a root cause of many other abuses such as child labour.

However, there is a very big catch with supermarkets’ own-brand certifications: they are designed, managed, implemented and enforced by the company itself. There are no independent mechanisms in place to ensure that it is really in line with workers’ interests, not the corporation’s own.

If you are looking for the most ethical option, we’d always recommend choosing a strong independent certification over one that is managed by the company itself.

Ethical brands in supermarkets

Supermarkets sell products from popular brands such as Coca Cola, Nestlé and Tetley. Unfortunately, though, lots of well-known brands are linked to environmental and human rights abuses. For example Nestlé has faced a boycott call for over thirty years. The boycott says Nestlé contributes to the unnecessary death and suffering of babies and children around the world by aggressively marketing baby foods in breach of international marketing standards.

By finding more ethical brands, you can make sure some of your money is supporting companies doing something different. For items like chocolate, tea and coffee, there are great ethical options that are available in most supermarkets. We list Best Buy and Recommended companies in each of our shopping guides.

Cafedirect is a Fairtrade coffee brand, which gives 50% of its profits back to an NGO working with producers to improve conditions around the world. The brand is a Best Buy in Ethical Consumer’s shopping guide to coffee, and is available in major supermarkets.

There are also a few ethical brands that produce lots of different items – from beans to spread. If you know their names, it can be an easy way to spot the more ethical option for a wide range of products. Biona and Nairn’s both score 11.5 out of 20 in our ratings. While they don’t do quite as well as some of our Best Buy companies, this is over double the score of any supermarket own-brand goods.

Some supermarkets may have dedicated whole food or organic sections, which are likely to stock more ethical brands. You may also find more ethical options by shopping online than at your local store, which will not stock everything the supermarket can offer.

Row of upright fridges with chilled food

Supermarket recommendations

Do you have a choice of supermarkets in your area? Here are our supermarket recommendations if you have the luxury of shopping in different stores.

Best supermarket for carbon emissions

Ethical Consumer has rated and ranked 19 supermarkets across a whole range of issues, including their environmental policies and practices.

Many of the mainstream brands scored a worst rating for their transparency on and commitment to reduce their emissions, including Asda, Morrisons and Tesco.

Coop was the only mainstream supermarket to score a best in this category.

Our recommended supermarket for vegan food

If you want a mainstream supermarket with a vegan range and stronger ethics across the board, Coop is likely to be your best option. See how they compare to other supermarkets in our guide.

Aldi has lots of low-cost vegan options, and scores very slightly better than some other choices in Ethical Consumer’s supermarkets guide. Although Asda also sells cheap vegan foods, it scores very poorly in our ratings, and wouldn’t be our recommended choice.

The cheapest vegan supermarket

Which? looked at the overall cost of shopping vegan in various supermarket chains in November 2022. It compared the price for a basket of goods needed for a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet. The basket included a number of well-known branded vegetarian and vegan alternatives, such as Quorn pieces and Linda McCartney sausages. It also included ingredients like tinned chickpeas and bags of lentils.

The research found that Asda was the cheapest, and Waitrose the most expensive, with over £5 difference between them, on around a £35 shop. Aldi didn’t have all of the items that Which? searched for, but on a smaller basket of goods was the cheapest of the retailers.

uSwitch also compared the average price of vegan products in each supermarket own-brand range in 2021. It found that Aldi’s Plant Menu was the cheapest, costing £1.43 for the average product. Asda’s Plant Based range was close behind, costing £1.45.

Best supermarket for plastic-free

With plastic polluting the earth’s oceans and ecosystems, more and more people are looking to shop without unnecessary packaging. Lots of supermarkets offer some unpackaged fruit and vegetables, but it’s almost impossible to find everything you might need zero-waste.

You can cut down on plastic waste in your supermarket shop by buying loose fruit and vegetables; taking your own tubs or bags for things from the bakery section or for veg; and by buying large packs. For example, a large packet of crisps has less plastic packaging than lots of individually wrapped items in a multipack.

Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency have rated supermarkets on their commitment to reducing plastic. Waitrose came out top of the table, followed by Aldi.

Cheap, ethical supermarket shopping

We often look to supermarkets for low-cost options. So is it possible to shop ethically in a supermarket and keep it cheap?

Ethical brands have a reputation for being more expensive, and there is a good reason for this. It generally costs more to pay workers properly, give farmers a fair price, produce without toxic chemicals, or avoid cheap but damaging ingredients like palm oil.

Nonetheless, there are easy ways to make lower cost ethical choices so that your supermarket shop doesn’t get more expensive.

Buying vegetarian and vegan food is much cheaper than buying meat and dairy overall, and is a clear ethical option. In fact, it can cut the cost of your food shop by as much as a third.

Likewise, fresh vegetables have a lower carbon footprint than ultra-processed foods (like sausages, breakfast cereals and biscuits) and can be cheaper, particularly if you buy produce that is in season. Some supermarkets are now also doing lower price ‘wonky’ ranges, that don’t meet their normal cosmetic standards and might otherwise have gone to waste. Morrisons and Lidl are offering low value ‘veg boxes’ with a selection of fresh produce.

Going for more of these choices, then, could actually save you money while reducing your climate impacts.

Why not use some of this extra cash to opt for ethical products that do cost slightly more? In Morrisons, Fairtrade Organic bananas cost just 20p more than conventional ones for a bunch of five. Recommended chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely costs around 50p more per 100g than Cadbury’s – and considerably less than Lindt.

Full online access to our unique shopping guides, ethical rankings and company profiles. The essential ethical print magazine.

Call on supermarkets to change

Across the UK, NGOs and campaign groups are challenging supermarkets on everything from workers’ rights to animal welfare. You can support these campaigns by signing a petition, writing to your local supermarket, or joining a demonstration. We list a few of these campaigns below.

Supermarket actions

Here are a few actions you might like to take.

1. Call on UK supermarkets to ditch plastic packaging

According to Greenpeace, “UK supermarkets currently generate 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging every year.” The group has started a petition calling on UK supermarkets to ditch throw-away plastic packaging.

You can sign the petition on the Greenpeace website.

2. Tell your supermarket to address cruelty against chickens

Chickens have been specially bred to grow quickly for meat. Known as ‘frankenchickens’, they suffer from serious health and welfare issues.

Over 300 companies from across Europe and the UK have pledged to stop selling this kind of chicken, and Open Cages is calling on UK supermarkets to follow suit. You can sign the petition to Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Aldi, Co-op, Asda, Ocado and Iceland on the Open Cages website.

3. Demand that Tesco stops funding deforestation

“The meat on Tesco’s shelves is destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of precious forests – but Tesco’s bosses keep dodging taking real action,” according to campaign site Eko.

“Tesco’s meat is reared on soy-based animal feed. Swathes of vital forest are cut down to grow these soybeans – harming the Indigenous peoples that live on this land, and pushing endangered species like the jaguar to the brink of extinction.”

They are telling Tesco to ​​stop doing business with forest destroyers. Sign the Tesco petition on the Eko website.

4. Tell UK supermarkets to end workers’ right violations in Spain

Supermarkets are buying fruit and vegetables from regions of Spain that are linked forced labour, union-busting, and sexual assault, amongst many other abuses. For years, they’ve failed to act on complaints from workers and NGOs.

Write to your supermarket now demanding that they create change. Check out our Ethical Consumer’s campaign for agricultural workers' rights in Spain.

5. Use Ethical Consumer’s website to demand change

Most of the supermarket Company Profiles have handy buttons that allow you to email or Tweet a company directly. Click on the button, and you’ll find an automatic email with the contacts provided, ready for you to edit.

You may want to use these buttons to contact a company about a specific issue, or to tell them how they did in Ethical Consumer’s guide and how you’d like to see them improve.

You can also read our shopping guides to find out how companies score for a number of ethical and environmental issues.

Ethical alternatives to supermarkets

Over the last 30 years, supermarkets have driven low-cost convenience for consumers. Unfortunately, though, this has come at the cost of farmers and workers in supply chains.

Supermarkets have pushed down prices by pressuring suppliers to continually deliver year-on-year reductions. This race to the bottom has led to producers cutting corners, reducing workers’ wages or other rights, or pursuing cheap ways of production at the cost of the environment.

You may want to start doing some or all of your shopping in other places, but it can be hard to know how to start. Here, we give a few options for moving more of your shopping elsewhere, while keeping some of the convenience supermarkets offer.

1. Ethical supermarkets

More and more ‘ethical supermarkets’ are popping up in cities and towns across the UK. Like traditional wholefood shops, they often stock ethical, organic and fair trade brands, as well as zero waste options. But like supermarkets, they are one stop options for everything you might need.

Our guide to supermarkets includes two great examples – Hisbe in Brighton and Christine’s in Bradford-On-Avon – to show what can be done. There are many options in other cities too, like Unicorn in Manchester, Beanies in Sheffield or Better Food in Bristol.

Search online to find an option near you.

organic food

2. Veg boxes

Buying a veg box can be a simple way to find predominantly seasonal, often local, and sometimes organic, produce.

Companies like Riverford and Abel & Cole offer delivery across the UK, and are included in our shopping guide to supermarkets. To find a local option, use the Soil Association’s directory, which lists all the organic food delivery box schemes in the UK.

While finding a veg box might take a little while, once it’s set up it can be really convenient. Each week, you’ll just have to accept your delivery or pick it up from a local pickup spot. The box may include some vegetables you’re less familiar with. Kale, jerusalem artichokes and fun kinds of squash are all veg box classics. But almost anything can be roasted in the oven with oil and salt!

Depending on the season, veg boxes can be good value. For some schemes you may pay the same year-round, meaning that at times of UK harvest it can be overflowing with local produce, but in the winter it may be a bit more thin on the ground. Check out how your local scheme operates to see if it would work for you.

Some food box farms also have solidarity initiatives, which allows members to pay on a sliding scale according to their income level. So if you’re on a lower income, you’ll pay less in line with this.

3. Ethical online options

Ordering online can be incredibly useful for many people. There are lots of ethical online options, such as Suma Wholefood, which performs well in Ethical Consumer’s guide to supermarkets, and delivers across the UK.

Search online to find other plastic free or wholefood delivery options.

Ethical Consumer works with carefully selected companies on an affiliate programme. If you shop with these companies via our link, we earn a small commission. Online ethical supermarket affiliates who sell food are Abel & Cole and Ethical Superstore. Fully vegan Veo stocks a smaller range of some food items.

Ethical Consumer’s shopping guide to supermarkets

Ethical Consumer’s guide to supermarkets rates and ranks the ethical and environmental record of 19 supermarket brands. We look at over 20 different categories, from involvement in factory farming to tax avoidance, and give each company an Ethiscore so you can compare their ethical performance.