Skip to main content

Alternative Supermarkets — a more sustainable food network

Anna Clayton explores the growing movement of a sustainable food network.

Our supermarket guide covers 9 alternative supermarkets which are representative of a more sustainable food network than that provided by the mainstream supermarket chains.

Some of these alternatives only have regional shops, like Unicorn in Manchester and HISBE in Brighton, but the rest are available to order from online.

  • Riverford’s national veg box service is run by a company clearly committed to growing and distributing organic food in an environmentally responsible way, for which it receives a positive Company Ethos mark. Guy Watson started the business in 1986 at Riverford, a family farm, and is said to have always seen profit as a means, not an end. Having rejected investor approaches, in June 2018, Watson sold 74% of the company to its employees at about a third of the market value, believing that “staff ownership will protect and develop Riverford’s model of sustainable food production and lock in place the values on which the business was founded”. It sells meat, dairy and fish products.
  • Abel & Cole, the other national veg box player, is a registered B Corp – a business that meets certain verified standards around social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability. However, as it is owned by the William Jackson Food Group which is not a B Corp, it does not receive a Company Ethos mark for this. It also sells meat dairy and fish.
  • HISBE is trying to create an ethical supermarket in Brighton that pays its staff a Brighton and Hove Living Wage – which is ‘How It Should Be’ (HISBE). 
    It receives a positive Company Ethos mark for its not-for-profit structure, and is a registered Community Interest Company and has the Social Enterprise Mark. Its shelves are stocked with organic and fairly traded produce sourced from small, local producers and other brands that score well in Ethical Consumer’s ratings.
    It is also working on reducing its packaging: selling fruit and veg with no plastic and offering nearly 150 product lines packaging free, with the aim of increasing this to 200.
  • Planet Organic is based in London and owned by the elusive investment firm Inverleith LLP. As the company Planet Organic is certified organic by the Soil Association, it is allowed to sell loose, unpackaged fruit, vegetables and bread.
  • Unicorn Grocery is a workers’ co-operative in Manchester whose operations are guided by its principles of purpose which include secure employment, equal opportunity, fair and sustainable trade and solidarity in cooperation. It is also Fair Tax Mark certified, as is the Co-operative Group – one of the world’s largest consumer cooperatives.
  • BigBarn is structured as a Community Interest Company and aims to reverse “the antisocial trend of the UK food industry: a trend towards the growing mass production of food and control of the market by big business and retailers, giving farmers an average of only 9p in every £1 spent on food in the supermarket”. 

    It does this by reconnecting consumers with their local producers, direct, or through local retailers, and encourages local trade, “giving farmers a better deal and consumers fresher, cheaper, accountable food”.

    As the company does not have environment or supply chain policies in place, nor does it clearly describe a minimum standard for the products it retails, it scores badly under a number of categories, despite selling many organic and free-range items. It instead relies on customers completing reviews and feedback forms to question the values of the producers and products.

  • Marks and Spencer Although M&S might come under the territory of more mainstream supermarkets, it has become the first British supermarket chain to publish details of its tea suppliers, responding to Traidcraft Exchange’s ‘Who picked my tea’ campaign – aimed at addressing workers’ rights abuses on plantations in Assam, northeast India (see our guide to tea). It is hoped that other supermarkets will now follow suit.
Subscription magazine and devices

Start your 30 day trial today!

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. Subscribe today for a wealth of data at your fingertips.

We will take payment when you order, but you can cancel by phone or email within 30 days for a full no-questions-asked refund!

30 day trial subscription - find out more