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Supermarkets

Ethical and environmental record of 19 supermarkets.

We also look at an A-Z of policies from animal welfare to palm oil production, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Morrisons and give our recommended buys. 

About 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying from supermarkets:

  • Is it Fairtrade? Overworked and underpaid labourers are one way that agricultural indgredients and products are sold ‘cheap’ in supermarkets. The Fairtrade scheme aims to improve the economic and social conditions of small-scale producers through a guaranteed floor price and a ‘Fairtrade premium’ to reinvest in communities. Look out for products with the Fairtrade logo.

  • Is it organic? The use of pesticides and herbicides is rife in the agricultural industry and causes serious environmental harms, from its impact on bee populations to its contamination of water sources. If you cannot buy everything organic, focus on the basics like carrots and potatoes.

  • Is it sustainably sourced? Palm oil, cocoa, fish and a myriad of other ingredients have their own issues in terms of human and environmental rights. Look for products with transparent sourcing information and which have an independent sustainability certification to prove it.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying from supermarkets:

  • Does it contain GMOs? Genetically modified seeds and crops bind growers to powerful multinationals producing agricultural chemicals. These companies have been criticised for seriously exploiting small-scale farmers. This is another reason to look for organic to be sure that you are avoiding GMOs.

  • Is it packaged in plastic? As it is well publicised now, plastic pollution is threatening marine ecosystems and contributing to climate change. Opt for loose fresh fruit and veg, and products with minimal plastic packaging. Look for stores with refill stations. Buying loose veg can also help to ‘precision buy’ only what you need, meaning less food waste.

  • Is it factory farmed? Factory farming causes suffering for animals and contributes to climate change. Less but better meat is an important lifestyle change. Organic certification has the highest standards of animal welfare. Better still, go for vegan options.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Supermarkets offer an accessible and efficient one-stop shop for a wide variety of affordable, diverse and tasty goods. 75% of UK consumers say they visit supermarkets twice or more a week to do their food shopping. But how many aisles away are they from being ethical?

What is wrong with supermarkets?

Just eight supermarkets dominate 93% of the UK food retail market.

As of 2020, over a third of the UK grocery market share is commanded by Tesco (21%), Sainsbury’s (11%) and Asda (10%) combined. In 2019, the once prolific independent retailers made up just 5% of the entire food sector: in 1950 there were 43,000 greengrocers and in 2018 there were just 2,500.

“Supermarket chains play the role of gatekeeper, deciding how food is produced, the (low) prices paid to farmers and what fills the shelves,” as authors of the People’s Food Policy put it.

Based on convenience and the suggestion of low prices, supermarkets maximise profit margins often at the expense of people and the environment. Over time, this system has become synonymous with waste. Additionally, the disproportionate power in the hands of supermarkets means less power held by food producers.

In 2020, ethical consumer spending hit record levels in the UK with ethical food and drink leading the way. This indicates a demand for doing food shopping differently. While this guide is very critical of supermarkets as a whole, we recognise that, in a world where people are often overworked and underpaid, for some, convenience can be a bit of lifeline.

This guide will therefore lead you through the ways that supermarkets have, or haven’t, been addressing pressing ethical problems, and point to the best of the bunch. We’ve included several smaller, independent companies that are existing alternatives to the giant food retailers, as an example of what else is possible. We also provide recommendations on how to shop outside of the systemically problematic supermarket model.

The age of cheapened food

Since their beginnings, supermarkets have pioneered convenience and offered cheap food. Or, rather, they have promoted the image of cheap food.

Many farmers are forced to sell produce like milk and eggs at unfair prices, which can leave them at a loss. On average, UK farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce sold in supermarkets. Smaller UK farmers have been increasingly squeezed out due to competition with larger farms, and their numbers are in decline, pushing food production into fewer and fewer hands.

The environment is sacrificed too: an ongoing campaign led by RiverAction revealed Tesco to be sourcing chicken and eggs from farms polluting the River Wye (our forthcoming eggs guide will have more about this).

Globally, meanwhile, supermarkets have been criticised for exacerbating poverty along supply chains where, despite being food growers, farmers and land workers struggle to feed themselves. The reality is that food has been cheapened but something somewhere has had to pay.

Meanwhile, some supermarket directors are paid obscene amounts of money. Tesco for example paid its chief executive £1,525,000 in remuneration last year, whilst the highest paid executive of The Co-op Group received £2,220,000.

Image: Supermarket Fridges

Supermarkets feed the junk food nation

Supermarkets are engineers of impulse buys: 40% of groceries in the UK are sold on promotion, and one in three UK food shoppers impulse buy unhealthy foods because they're on special offer, according to a new report from the Royal Society for Public Health.

Stores are typically laid out so that promotions are at high-traffic areas like aisle ends or near entrances. Over half of the calories eaten in the UK consist of ultra-processed food, which has led to food being the biggest driver of NHS spending.

But it isn’t only in-store marketing and promotions that risk public health. In 2019, Asda, Lidl and Marks & Spencer were found to have breached advertising rules by allowing ads for food and soft drink products high in fat, salt or sugar to be shown alongside videos on YouTube channels directed at children.

Increasing healthy food sales

Due to civil society pressure, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Lidl, and Aldi (own brand) now have targets for sales of healthy or ‘healthier’ food. They have begun setting specific goals and disclosing sales-based data for healthy vs. unhealthy food, fruit and vegetables, and different protein sources (animal and plant-based).

Several have taken responsibility for their questionable marketing tactics and made voluntary pledges to no longer sell confectionery at checkouts. Responding to investor pressure, Tesco has committed to increasing sales of healthy products as a proportion of total sales by 65% by 2025. What ‘healthy’ means to these supermarkets, however, remains unclear.

Additionally, the price of eating better needs to be addressed. Those with the lowest income in society would need to spend 74% of their disposable income on food to meet the Eatwell Guide costs – the Government’s official healthy eating guide. This is compared to only 6% of disposable income for the richest 10%.

Cartoon about food waste and large profits for supermarkets

Supermarkets feed the food waste scandal

Most research to date has shone the spotlight on household food waste or on waste directly from supermarket stores – the latter equating to at least 190 million meals a year.

Whilst unacceptable, recent studies have revealed that over 3.6 million tonnes of food is wasted before it even reaches supermarket doors – around 10 times the amount thrown away by retailers.

According to a 2018 report by Feedback, Tesco is the only large supermarket to publish independently audited data on the food waste produced throughout its supply chain. Failing to track this waste means supermarkets can avoid responsibility for it.

One major cause of on-farm waste is supermarkets’ cosmetic specifications. You can’t make a carrot like you can a factory-line of identical cars, and yet farmers in the UK and abroad are expected to do just that. This leads to overproduction as farmers factor in that much of their crop will be the ‘wrong’ shape, size or colour.

Responding to this, Tesco, Asda, Aldi, Morrisons and the Co-op now have “wonky” ranges of fresh fruit and veg. Tesco is working with its top five suppliers to reduce waste by 50% by 2030 and has a ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ range with 12 different types of seasonal fruit and veg. However, to truly tackle this issue, supermarkets must systematically relax their cosmetic specifications. The beauty of a wonky parsnip is, after all, ‘in the palate of the beholder’.

In general supermarkets send little or no waste to landfill. Instead, they tackle their in-store food waste by redistributing edible food (via local surplus food schemes or food banks) or sending it for animal feed or anaerobic digestion – the latter being subsidised by government green energy incentives.

Feedback’s 2018 investigation revealed the best performing supermarkets for redistributing food for human consumption are Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda. However, relying on the bulging surplus of supermarket produce to solve hunger is not a just nor sustainable long-term solution. The Food Research Collaboration argues that corporate ‘food aid’ allows governments to avoid addressing the systemic issues that cause food poverty in the UK.

Want some food with your plastic?

All supermarkets except Waitrose lost half a mark under Pollution and Toxics for collectively selling 896,853 tonnes of plastic packaging during 2019.

An investigation in 2021 by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency found that M&S, Waitrose and Aldi performed best in taking action on plastic, with the latter two plus Sainsbury’s offering the most loose fruit and veg.

Some supermarkets have begun trialling packaging-free refill systems, including some branded goods, on shop floors such as M&S, Asda, and Waitrose. In addition, Asda, Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose all have targets to increase the proportion of products sold through reusable and refillable packaging.

Despite this sea of plastic reduction targets, voluntary measures by supermarkets have meant they’ve cut plastic waste production by just 2% since 2018.

Morrisons, for example – the first retailer to remove all plastic bags for loose fruit and veg – has experienced a 3% increase in total plastic use per unit of market share since 2018. One of the reasons for this is because many brands they sell are covered in plastic.

Supermarkets should do more to source branded produce with less unnecessary packaging, but they largely focus on own-brand plastic packaging. Campaigners have called on the government to introduce legally binding targets as well as compulsory reporting of companies’ plastic use to pick up the pace of reducing single-use plastic overall.

It is also important to be aware of the company’s overall environmental approach. Whilst Asda may be responding to the Attenborough-effect when it comes to plastic, for example, it continues to own 320 petrol stations, making large profits off fossil fuels, and since early 2021 is now owned by petrol station billionaires.

Deforestation fires burning in Amazon
Deforested and burnt area already being used for cattle ranching in Porto Velho, Rondônia state, Brazil. Image (c) Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

Turning down the heat on meat

The reduction of meat and dairy consumption in high-income, industrialised countries can help significantly reduce consumer-end emissions.

Our new Climate Gap report shows that UK citizens need to reduce meat and dairy consumption by at least 20% to meet UK climate targets.

Tesco currently stocks the biggest range of plant-based products and alternative dairy products of any UK retailer. Ocado’s meat-free options make up 40% of its ready meals, and Morrisons, Asda and Aldi doubled the size of their meat-free ranges between 2018 and 2020.

Nevertheless, despite the increase in popularity of plant-based foods, meat consumption is yet to decline, with purchases of chicken, beef and pork products having increased in 2020.

As a key cause of deforestation and land use conversion, The Food Foundation argues that, beyond increasing sales of meat-free products, it is crucial that the supermarkets reduce the sale of meat altogether. Yet so far, no UK supermarket has explicitly committed to reducing meat and dairy within their emissions reduction targets.

The Food Foundation also says supermarkets must address animal diets, which commonly rely on soya.

The trouble with soya and meat

At least 90% of soya used in the UK is fed to animals.

Alone, Tesco is responsible for one-sixth of the UK’s soya imports, 99% of which goes into its meat and dairy supply chain. 86% of this comes from South America, which typically produces GM soya.

In 2020, an investigation revealed that Tesco, Lidl, and Asda were sourcing chicken fed on soya supplied by the trading behemoth Cargill, which has been linked to deforestation. Nearly half of Cargill’s Brazilian exports to the UK are from the Cerrado – a biodiverse tropical woody savannah and carbon sink in Brazil. Tesco also buys British chicken and pork from subsidiaries of JBS, which is tied to deforestation and fires in the Amazon. Other customers include Aldi, Co-op, Lidl, Waitrose and M&S.

Back in 2010, campaigning by Greenpeace led to supermarkets like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and M&S signing ‘zero deforestation by 2020’ commitments. These have yet to be realised. Now, Tesco, along with Co-op and M&S, have committed to sourcing soya from deforestation-free regions by 2025. But a Greenpeace report states that places with zero deforestation “don’t even exist yet”. Tesco also fails to say what action will be taken against suppliers that don’t meet its requirements. Tesco continues to trade with JBS, which it claims is “on track to meet our commitment under our UK zero deforestation soy transition plan”.

Cartoon of a factory farm
Cartoon by Mike Bryson

Supermarket ‘freshwashing’

A 2020 survey showed that over half (51%) of respondents believed food shopping from local stores and farm shops was better for the environment. Just under half believed shopping at these places can help them understand where their produce came from.

Supermarkets capitalise on the public’s general support for home-grown produce, but can work to muddy the waters of traceability. M&S’s organic milk says it’s “collected daily from a select group of British farms”, though finding exactly which farms is an odyssey.

Tesco sells blueberries supposedly from a ‘Rosedene Farm’. From the packaging, one would be forgiven for thinking this was a UK farm, which is odd because the origin label states ‘Morocco’. The farm on the label doesn’t actually exist.

A report by Feedback showed that some supermarkets use ‘fake farms’ to market products with small-scale farm imagery and give them the appearance of having been produced to higher standards than in reality.
 
The use of ‘fake farms’ on supermarket labelling highlights the importance of transparency around provenance. Whilst Tesco labels its tomatoes as being from ‘Nightingale Farms’, they are often sourced from Spain. As Ethical Consumer knows through multiple investigations, the Spanish region from which many supermarkets source tomatoes is rife with workers’ rights abuses from underpayment to unsafe conditions.

Ethical labels used by supermarkets

Awash with ethical labels and claims, supermarkets can befuddle the best intentioned. A good 400 certification schemes exist and can generate awareness and interest in the conditions in which food and drinks are grown and produced. However, the robustness of their criteria and monitoring varies greatly.

One comprehensive study of over 40 global multi-stakeholder initiatives over a decade rated Fairtrade as one of the strongest certification schemes, with producers having 50% ownership and voting power in the Fairtrade International General Assembly. Several of the supermarkets have committed to selling some Fairtrade 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.

However, the study found that only 13% of the initiatives analysed included affected populations in their governing bodies. In 2017, Sainsbury’s dropped Fairtrade for its own ‘Fairly Traded’ label for tea to build “closer relationships with our suppliers” and were criticised by Fairtrade tea farmers for wanting too much control over shaping the certification standards.

Ethical issues in supermarkets and our ratings

Going food shopping with ethics in mind can be a mighty task. We rated companies on a broad spectrum of policies, including how they are tackling climate change, other environmental impacts, worker’s rights and animal welfare, through to the sourcing policies for cocoa, cotton, palm and timber. A detailed explanation of how supermarkets performed can be found below.

The smaller, regional independent stores, HISBE and Christine’s, food box companies Riverford and Abel & Cole, and the wholesaler Suma performed better across the board.

Asda, which was bottom of the Ethiscore table in the last supermarket guide has moved up due to improved environmental reporting and palm oil and timber policies, partly as it's no longer being majority owned by Walmart.

Photo of cattle in pens in factory farming

Animal rights, animal welfare and factory farming

All supermarkets reviewed lost marks under Animal Rights because they sold meat, dairy or egg products. Ethical Consumer also marks companies down under Factory Farming if they sell meat, poultry or fish not certified as organic or free-range: all except Riverford, HISBE, Christine's, Abel & Cole and Suma were marked down. Planet Organic's mark in this column was due to a related company.

Iceland offers no organic or free-range options, while Morrisons – which pioneers 100% British meat products – was found in 2021 to be selling Red Tractor-labelled chicken from farms rearing chickens forced to grow too quickly for their bodies to cope. Additionally, a 2020 report revealed that Iceland, Asda, and Aldi were selling
meat from pigs that have had their teeth and tails cut without pain relief. They're cut to prevent them from biting and injuring each other – a symptom of being forced into crammed conditions.

Suma received half a positive mark under Company Ethos for it being a vegetarian company, although it sold a relatively small range of eggs so lost half a mark under Animal Rights.

Animal testing

Since we last looked at supermarkets, we have changed our animal testing rating.

We recognise that small companies have less capacity to enforce a fixed cut-off date from suppliers, so for small companies we now accept a statement that no ingredients are animal tested, without a fixed cut-off date.

Companies scoring a best Ethical Consumer rating for animal testing were Riverford, Christine’s and HISBE. The rest scored a middle – including companies that have robust non-animal testing policies for their own-brand supply chains but sell branded products from other company groups which conduct animal testing – or a worst.

Beewashing

When it comes to exploiting bees for honey, many supermarkets fall short of ethical policies. Some supermarkets like Sainsbury’s did state positive approaches to beekeeping, including “no use of antibiotics” but such policies fail to address issues of swarm control, artificial queen rearing and queen clipping, which are issues raised in our guide to honey. All companies selling own-brand honey lost half a mark under Animal Rights, except Suma which had adequate policies.

M&S lost additional marks for having introduced a thousand honeybee hives to produce single-estate honey as part of a ‘farming with nature’ programme. Heavily criticised as ‘beewashing’ by those in the conservation science community, it was argued these (not endangered) honeybees would compete with endangered wild native pollinators over valuable food sources.

Climate change

Aldi, Asda, Booths, Co-op, HISBE, Iceland, Morrisons, Ocado, Planet Organic, Sainsbury’s, Spar, Suma and Tesco all received our worst rating for carbon management and reporting.

Booths and Spar failed to adequately discuss or report their climate impacts at all. Asda, Co-op, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco automatically got a worst for operating petrol stations (which is a shame because some, for example Co-op, were taking meaningful steps on their other carbon impacts). Sainsbury’s, the sponsor of the 2021 UN climate conference, is also owner of a bank without an apparent policy prohibiting financing of fossil fuels.

Whilst HISBE, Planet Organic and Suma are definitely supporting organic produce, it was not felt they did enough to discuss their climate impacts or meet Ethical Consumer’s other criteria.

Both organic delivery companies, Abel & Cole and Riverford discussed a variety of ways they are committed to reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and thus received a middle overall, along with Christine's.

Other companies that received a middle were Lidl, M&S and Waitrose all of which failed to report sufficiently on their indirect emissions, including those from their supply chains. Whilst often seen as ‘out of their control’, these emissions make up the most of supermarkets’ total, e.g. for Morrisons it is 97%. A lot of this comes from farming, which led Morrisons to commit to ‘net-zero’ farms by 2030. However, this target appeared to include offsetting.

Aldi, Asda, Iceland, Lidl and Morrisons lost additional marks under Climate Change based on being the lowest-scoring companies in a study by Feedback on supermarkets’ corporate policies and targets on meat and climate-impact.

Cocoa

The issue of child and slave labour in cocoa supply chains has been known since before 2000.

Companies are expected to have 100% of cocoa used in own-brand products certified by Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade, or to only source from outside of West Africa where the issues of child labour are widely reported.

Companies with the best approach to cocoa sourcing were Suma, Co-op, Waitrose and Lidl.

Companies that lost a mark for having no or inadequate sourcing policies were Aldi, Asda, Booths, Iceland, M&S, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Spar.

Some companies were not rated as they did not sell own-brand products containing cocoa - Abel & Cole, Christine's, HISBE and Riverford.

Cotton

Our cotton rating looks at two key issues: forced labour in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and widespread use of GM cotton seeds.

All companies selling cotton products in this guide (Aldi, Asda, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco) were marked down under Controversial Technologies for failing to have adequate policies.

Aldi, M&S, Sainsbury's and Tesco were the only companies prohibiting the use of cotton grown in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and the rest were therefore also marked down under Workers’ Rights.

Since the last update, more evidence has also emerged showing the systemic state-sanctioned use of forced labour in cotton production in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Reports suggest that all companies using cotton may be linked, but some in particular have been named, including Aldi and Lidl. M&S, Sainsbury's, and Tesco have signed up to the ‘End Uyghur Forced Labour’ pledge committing to withdraw from the region.

Environmental reporting

In order to get a best rating under this category, Ethical Consumer expected companies to show reasonable understanding of some of their environmental impacts and provide an independently verified environmental report including two future quantifiable targets to reduce their impacts.

Supermarkets largely discussed plastic, food waste, in-store energy consumption reduction measures, and refrigeration as key issues. However, some failed to discuss the role of agriculture sufficiently.

Planet Organic is largely organic but, due to lack of verified reports and quantifiable targets, it lost a full mark along with Booths, Ocado and Suma.

Both the food box delivery companies, Riverford and Abel & Cole, committed to 100% organic and to never using air freight, and provided quantified targets to reduce delivery emissions and cut food waste. However, they did not provide evidence of independent verification of their data and therefore received a middle rating, along with Aldi, Asda, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Spar and Tesco.

Best ratings went to HISBE, Christine’s, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, and Co-op.

Fish sourcing

Bigger supermarkets retailing large amounts of own-brand fish commonly certify this with Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

In 2018, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Waitrose, Aldi, and Lidl had over 65% of MSC-certified fish. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

MSC was one of the major targets of Netflix’s Seaspiracy documentary and, most recently, an independent review of MSC was called for by campaign alliance On the Hook, made up of conservation groups and marine scientists. This stems from an ongoing critique of the scheme having unacceptably low standards in a bid to meet ever-growing market demand and to get more (generally large industrial) fisheries into the programme.

MSC has also been criticised for marginalising fisheries in low-income countries, where some of the world’s most environmentally and socially sustainable small-scale and artisanal fisheries are, which cannot afford the high cost of certification. In its defence, MSC argues their system is better than the industry self-certifying.

Smaller supermarkets retailing fish had stronger policies. Planet Organic only sold organic, day boat wild-caught or Leap-certified fish. Riverford sourced only line-caught fish from small day boats based in South West England and knows “all the fishers personally".

Tree with orangutan on it being destroyed by a digger
An orangutan faces up to bulldozers in West Borneo where palm oil expansion threatens the great apes’ survival. Image from International Animal Rescue.

Palm oil

Our palm oil rating has changed since last time.

Spar, Booths, Ocado and Aldi did not have sufficient policies assuring that the palm oil in their supply chain is certified and thus lost a whole mark.

Lidl, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Morrisons, Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Abel & Cole and Co-op lost only half a mark for having all palm oil and derivatives certified RSPO and for at least 50% of total ingredients being from a physically certified supply chain.

Suma, as a medium sized company with all palm oil certified and at least 50% of derivatives, scored middle.

Five companies didn’t lose any marks: Christine's, Iceland and Riverford for having a zero palm oil policy for own brand products, and HISBE and Planet Organic for not producing own-branded products.

Pesticide use

A recent ranking launched by Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) revealed that highly toxic pesticides are being used within the supply chains of all of the UK’s largest ten supermarkets. The chemicals in question include carcinogens and hormone disruptors, as well as bee-toxins and water contaminants shown to harm aquatic species.

Pesticides used in agriculture can often leave detectable traces of chemicals in, or on, our food known as ‘residues’. The residues detected on a food item will depend on which pesticides have been used and how persistent they are, in other words, how long they take to decompose.

Co-op and Waitrose both announced an end to the sale of pesticides in 2021 e.g. weedkillers (although fruit and veg produce will still potentially have residues on them).

PAN suggests that shoppers buy organic whenever possible. Shoppers who can’t afford or access a fully organic diet can find out which items to prioritise by checking PAN UK’s Dirty Dozen list of the most affected fruit and vegetables.

Full details of the ranking of supermarkets are available on the PAN UK website, and also a summary in the image below.

Infographic drawing with stack of 11 tins of food with supermarket names on each one. 1st equal Marks and Spencer, Waitrose. 3rd Coop. 4th Sainburys. 5th Morrisons. 6th Tesco. 7th Lidl. 8th Asda. 9th Aldi. 10th Iceland.

Supply chain management

Having a transparent and traceable supply chain is necessary to hold supermarkets accountable. However, only a small number of supermarkets have stepped up to the plate on this.

Waitrose, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, and Lidl scored best for meeting basic human rights criteria, stakeholder engagement, having robust auditing and reporting systems and tackling difficult issues in their supply chains.

HISBE, Christine's, Suma, Abel & Cole, Riverford, Co-op, Asda, Tesco, M&S, and Aldi all scored a middle rating. Positively, HISBE emphasised paying their suppliers a fair wage and prioritised a local supply chain, whilst Riverford focused on maintaining long-term supplier relationships.

Booths, Iceland, Ocado, Planet Organic and Spar all lost a whole mark for inadequate policies or a lack of publicly available information.

Tax conduct

Since the last guide Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Lidl have not changed their ways in regard to likely use of tax avoidance strategies and thus all lost a mark under Tax Conduct

Timber

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 – such as FSC – seeking group-wide policies that set sustainable timber targets; have good minimum standards; show preference for reclaimed, recycled and certified products; exclude illegal timber; and evidence involvement in multi-stakeholder initiatives.

Companies that sell own-brand paper/timber products and have a good approach to timber sourcing include Lidl, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Co-op, and Suma. Lidl has improved significantly since the last supermarket guide, having gone from a worst to best rating.

Our worst timber sourcing rating goes to Booths, Ocado and Spar.

Workers' rights

Poor pay and punitive working conditions are common on farms and plantations that supply to major UK supermarkets.

As shown in a 2019 Oxfam report, Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons source tea from Indian estates and fruits from Brazilian farms where workers live in poverty and experience human rights abuses. These companies were marked down for this secondary criticism. In 2020, Tesco disclosed instances of workers’ rights abuses in its operations in Malaysia and Thailand including unexplained and illegal wage reductions and excessive overtime work.

In Europe too, a joint supply chain investigation by Ethical Consumer and the Guardian found that many migrant land workers in Southern Spain are facing systemic labour exploitation as they work in a region that produces fruit and vegetables for all nine major supermarkets in the UK. These supermarkets lost half a mark for failing to take action on workers’ rights there.

Workers rights and the living wage

A study in April 2020 found that 45% of all workers at UK supermarkets were paid less than the ‘real living wage’ which currently stands at £11.05 per hour inside of London and £9.90 outside the city. In 2021, employees of the John Lewis Partnership, including Waitrose, claimed that 20.6% of them were not earning a living wage whilst hundreds of high-level staff were paid £100,000 or more.

Of the companies included in this guide, those that paid UK store-employees a living wage in November 2021 included Riverford Organic, Suma, Lidl, Aldi, Morrisons, Co-op and Sainsbury’s.

Abel & Cole and HISBE go the next step, as the only 'supermarkets' accredited with the Living Wage Foundation, which also guarantees the living wage to subcontracted staff.

Co-op starts selling groceries on Amazon Prime

In a disappointing move, in summer-autumn 2021 Co-op Group supermarkets joined Morrisons by hooking up with Amazon for same day delivery food shopping. Amazon Prime customers will be able to do their Co-op shopping on the Amazon UK website.

Note that The Co-op Group differs from regional co-operative independents, such as the MidCounties Co-operative, which are separate legal entities.

The Co-op already uses the controversial platform Deliveroo for its home delivery service. Amazon and Deliveroo are regularly criticised for their working practices and pay. See our new guide to delivery companies.

The Co-op first teamed up with Amazon in 2012, providing collection lockers for Amazon purchases in its stores.

GMB national officer Andy Prendergast criticised the move:

"It's really disappointing to see a company with a proud ethical heritage like Co-op teaming up with Amazon: a tax-evading multinational with a horrifying health and safety record. Amazon has made billions throughout the pandemic and pays virtually no tax. Bosses won’t even recognise a union to improve the health and safety of their beleaguered workforce.”

A Co-op spokesperson said: “We aren’t compromising our ethics and principles and the extension of the partnership is about getting our ethically sourced products into the hands of more people.”

The Co-op is one of our Recommended buys for supermarkets, whilst we are calling for a boycott of Amazon for its tax avoidance, so our current advice is buy food from the Co-op but don’t buy it online.

Image: organic veg box

A basket full of alternatives

As this guide has shown, shopping ethically in supermarkets can be a devil of a task. But, as the average person in the UK makes 221 trips to the supermarket every year, there’s a lot of opportunities to do things differently. After decades of civil society pressure, the big supermarkets still fail to deliver on social justice and environmental sustainability.

Thinking of ourselves as food citizens, rather than just consumers, can help build a different food future.

Our guides covers some smaller, independent food retailers - HISBE, Planet Organic, Riverford and Suma - but we also believe it's useful to provide a non-exhaustive list of places working on an alternative model of food retail to the big supermarkets. Click on the items below to find out more about each one.

A sustainable food network

Your local independent wholefood shop is a great option for accessing produce which is often healthy, organic and sourced with ethics in mind. These stores often have refill stations as well as stocking locally produced fresh food.

Since the beginning of the first lockdown in the UK, 41% of the British population were shopping in their local food retailers more often than usual. Hopefully this marks a lasting resurgence.

Two stores included in this guide, HISBE and Christine’s, are examples of independent wholefood stores.

Others include Unicorn Grocery - a workers’ co-operative in Manchester which is Fair Tax Mark certified.

Search online for local options near to you.

Zero-waste shops are a great way to get introduced to a refill lifestyle. Offering a wide range of loose goods like pulses, pastas and cereals, they allow shoppers to choose amounts according to what they need which helps reduce unnecessary waste.

See the Zero Waste Network for a nation-wide map of stores or the beeco directory of loose food stores.

Getting together with a few people to bulk buy from a wholefood wholesaler is an appealing solution for many – particularly when buying non-perishable bulk items.

One such store is Suma which scored highly in this guide, operates on co-operative structure, is a vegetarian company and offers UK-wide delivery.

Other vegan/vegetarian online stores exist which may offer bulk buying options without a minimum delivery charge.

One way of accessing food for a lower price is to join a small, local buying group.

Cooperation Town is a new network of community-led food co-ops, organising on streets and estates across the country. If you become a member, the co-op provides you with affordable groceries, sourced in bulk and distributed at a very low price. The idea is one based on solidarity, not charity and can be a more sociable way of doing food shopping.

See if you have a local buying group near you or check out Cooperation Town to set up one in your area!

People in the UK are now around four times more likely to search online for “veg box” than in pre-pandemic times.

A range of companies offer organic veg (and other food) boxes, either for doorstep delivery or local collection. Many can help you discover fruit and vegetables which you might not have eaten before.

We covered the national market leaders in this guide – Riverford Organics and Abel & Cole – but there are a plethora of others.

The Soil Association has a useful directory of all the organic food delivery box schemes in the UK on its ‘Find an Organic Box Scheme’ web page.

Some food box farms also have a solidarity initiative which is a kind of wealth distribution scheme via food. It allows members to pay on a sliding scale according to their income level, which enables those with lower income to enjoy fresh local food at a more affordable price or even for free.

Skipping supermarkets and buying food directly from smaller, local farms is not always accessible, but is made more possible by the growing number of farmers' markets appearing in urban places. Buying at a farmers' market means the producer can get up to three times more for their produce than in a supermarket, and your money is going back into the local economy rather than the pockets of a corporation.

The Open Food Network is a platform to help eaters find and connect with their local, independent, small food retailers.

See their directory of existing shops.

CSA is a partnership between food producers and eaters in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming are shared. The CSA model guarantees an income for the farmer by the customer paying at the beginning of the season or in instalments. This provides growers with funds at the beginning of the season and guarantees a home for the produce, reducing on-farm waste. Many offer delivery services or convenient pick-up locations.

See the CSA website for a directory of farms near you.

There are so many initiatives which gather people together from all backgrounds to connect people with food growing. Many of these initiatives seek to make home-grown, organic food accessible to everyone, to learn new skills and share harvests.

Given that it is a privilege to have access to a private garden or patio, joining a community growing initiative can be a space for gaining that important feeling of food autonomy.

Social Farms & Gardens is a UK-wide charity supporting communities to farm, garden and grow together. These places often recognise the political nature of food growing. One issue, for example, is the struggle some people have to access culturally appropriate food.

The Coriander Club at Spitafields City Farm has responded to to this by growing certain crops like amaranth which is not readily available in supermarkets.

Cropping up all over the country, Sustainable Food Places focus on practical engagement opportunities to grow, sell, buy, cook and share food. The movement also works towards a sustainable food economy, promoting ways for people to spend their money within local economies.

Their campaign is grounded in the belief that good food is a right not a privilege and that everyone should be able to eat healthily every day. They support people to become community food activists on issues they feel are important in their locality.

To get involved, search the map of sustainable food places for one near you.

Better Food Traders is a scheme for food business trading for social purpose, not to maximise profit. Not shopping in supermarkets can be hard, but BFT has a map to show independent food retailers that source their produce in line with ethical and sustainable parameters set by BFT, e.g., short supply chains, ecologically appropriate food, living wages and supporting local economies.

A map of BFT member traders can be found on their website.

Currently there are 40+ BFT members across the UK totalling 400+ plus pick up points, delivery areas and shops.

If you do have access to a growing space, whether it’s your windowsill, a patio or allotment, Garden Organic can be a useful online resource.

If you want to grow your plants from seed, be sure to get them from a UK-based organic independent supplier.

Some include the Seed Co-operative - the UK's community owned organic seed company and Vital Seeds which offers open-pollinated seeds - the natural method by which plants breed.

Company behind the brand

Morrisons describes itself as “British farming’s biggest single customer”, working with over 2,200 livestock farmers and 200 growers. It has announced ambitions to source only from ‘net-zero’ farms by 2030. To do
this, it claims offsetting will be a last step and farmers will be encouraged to restore grassland, peatland, forest and hedgerows on their own estate or elsewhere in the UK. However, rather than cutting its demand for meat, as scientific experts have advised, it plans to offset 60% of its beef-related production emissions.

In October 2021, Morrisons was bought for £7 billion by U.S. private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. This marked the end of its 54-year run as a publicly listed company. It will be operated by Market21 GP Holdings, which is administered from the Cayman Islands – considered a tax haven.
 

Declaration

Ethical Consumer Research Association has a current commercial partnership with Co-op Food with which it co-produces the annual Ethical Consumer Markets Report.

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