Supermarkets

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 22 supermarkets.

We also look at an A-Z of policies from palm oil to cocoa production, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Unicorn wholefood grocery in Manchester 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? The food industry notoriously relies on overworked and underpaid labours to grow its agricultural ingredients and products. Look for the Fairtrade logo to ensure that the people behind your products are treated fairly.

  • 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. Go for organic products.

  • 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 that have been sustainably sourced, and which have independent 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. Look for organic to be sure that you are avoiding GMOs.

  • Is it packaged in plastic? The plastic in our oceans could circle the planet 400 times. It is threatening marine ecosystems and contributing to climate change. Opt for products with minimal plastic packaging.

  • Is it factory farmed? Factory farming causes suffering for animals and contributes to climate change. For a more sustainable shop, look for vegan products.

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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

What does this guide cover?

This guide covers 13 of the larger supermarkets most of which have shops throughout the UK. We have also included 9 alternative supermarkets which are representative of a more sustainable food network. 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.

Introduction

There is no doubt about it, supermarkets offer an accessible and efficient one-stop shop for a wide variety of affordable, diverse and tasty goods.

A quick scan of supermarkets’ shelves also highlights a range of more ethical goods such as Fairtrade, organic and MSC-certified products, some Ethical Consumer Best Buys and an increasing range of free-range, vegan and plastic-free options. This choice is hard to resist, even for the food activists amongst us.

Alongside greater ethical options, improvements are also being made around some supermarkets’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting - highlights include Iceland’s palm oil free stance and Tesco’s move towards all cocoa in its UK own-brand products being Rainforest Alliance certified. 

Flaws in the supermarket industry 

Although these improvements are great news on the surface, dig a little deeper, and the degraded foundations of supermarkets and the wider industrial food system are impossible to ignore.

The Food Foundation’s recent report, ‘The Broken Plate’, highlights ten unhealthy signs of our current food system, which include:

  • 46% of food and drink advertising goes on confectionery, sweet and savoury snacks and soft drinks; while only 2.5% goes on fruit and vegetables.
  • Of the foods reviewed, unhealthy foods tend to be three times cheaper than healthy food; influencing unhealthy diet choices.
  • 17.6% of employees of the food industry earn the minimum wage, compared to 7% of workers across the UK.
  • The poorest 10% of UK households 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% in the richest 10%.

Put simply, supermarkets’ true operating costs continue to be borne by workers throughout their supply chains, animal species in their millions, public health and the health of the earth’s ecosystems.

Image: Supermarket Fridges

The need to reform our supermarket system

For companies that depend on purchasing from commodity markets – or purchasing from those that purchase from commodity markets – one credible way of addressing serious problems in supply chains is to buy certified products.

But, even then, there are no guarantees: the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Forest Stewardship Council have both been roundly criticised for certifying unethical production units, and Fairtrade and Organic certification also have limitations.

The current approach seems to be ‘fix issues as and when they appear’, or when society gets inspired by a TV programme to demand changes, e.g. single-use plastics.

But often the quick solutions implemented don’t address systemic issues – as highlighted in our feature on Agricultural workers’ rights abuses in Spain.

Ethical Consumer contacted the big nine supermarkets about their sourcing policies and all claimed to be addressing workers’ rights issues in Almeria, Spain. However, all continued to source from the area’s horticulture industry despite the known problems (payments below the living wage, unsafe pesticide use, and uninhabitable housing continue to be prevalent, with little signs of improvement). Clearly the supermarkets’ sourcing policies are not effecting positive systemic change.

Walter Lewis of Feeding Body and Soul:

“When a system is as broke as the food system of the western world, it is no good tinkering around the edges. A radical new approach – or approaches – is required. A case is presented for moving towards farming and growing systems which are actively regenerative of environment and community.”

The 2017-18 Grocery Code Adjudicator report similarly highlights the need for systemic issues to be addressed via “a concentrated focus on culture change and strong engagement by both direct suppliers and retailers”.

Are our ‘super’ markets capable of shifting beyond certification schemes and short-termism towards more long term and regenerative ways of working?

image: man looking at menu in unicorn our best rated supermarket in chorlton, manchester uk
How a super market should be - Unicorn, a worker-owned wholefood grocery in Manchester.

Our approach to rating supermarkets

To support us in exploring the cultural shift needed, some alternative supermarkets have been included in this Product Guide to offer a comparison and food for thought. These are symbolic of a growing sustainable food movement which is discussed at the bottom of this page.

Ethical Consumer has assessed the full range of products sold by the companies featured.

Given the size and complexity of the 13 large supermarkets’ supply chains, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they fall to the bottom of the score table above. Having said that, Unicorn has demonstrated how a mission-orientated business can humbly tackle complex supply chains without losing sight of its core values.

Since we last reviewed supermarkets in 2017, Lidl and Iceland have both shown improvements in CSR reporting and practise and have moved up the Ethiscore table.

Morrisons, Ocado, Tesco, Booths, Aldi and the Co-op have all lost marks. Asda, Spar, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer have stayed the same.

Image: Uzbekistan cotton picker
Cotton is a problematic crop for three key reasons. Firstly, forced labour is rife in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, a source of much of Europe’s cotton. It is also highly chemically intensive, accounting for 12.34% of all insecticide sales and 3.94% of herbicide sales. Thirdly, genetically modified cotton accounted for 80% of cotton grown in 2017.

A-Z of supermarket policies

Animal rights

Despite supermarkets cashing in on the rise of veganism, they completely fail to ingrain animal rights values in their supply chains.

With the exception of Unicorn (vegan company) and Infinity, Suma and Essential (vegetarian companies), all companies covered lost a full mark in the Animal Rights category for selling meat and other animal products.

Where uncertified meat and dairy was found, companies also lost a mark under the Factory Farming category.

In addition, we have looked at the non-food animal products and ingredients sold, including leather, silk, merino wool, down and feathers.

Animal welfare

Ranking company performance for animal welfare strategies is a complex undertaking. Fortunately, the Business Benchmark for Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW) now does this annually and has been a key driver in pushing companies to improve their practices in recent years.

In regard to supermarkets, Waitrose has moved up three tiers since the report started in 2012, and Walmart, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Lidl and Aldi Süd have moved up two tiers.

Companies in this guide have been ranked in the following tiers by the BBFAW:

  • Tier 1- Leadership: Marks & Spencer, Waitrose.
  • Tier 2 – Integral to Business Strategy: Co-op, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.
  • Tier 3 – Established but work to be done: Aldi, Lidl.
  • Tier 4 – Making progress on implementation: Asda (Walmart). 
  • (Not ranked in BBFAW: Booths, Spar, Iceland, Ocado, BigBarn, Planet Organic, Abel & Cole, Essential, Suma, Infinity, Unicorn, Riverford and HISBE).

Animal testing

Companies losing half a mark in this category have robust non-animal testing policies for their own-brand supply chains but sell branded products from other companies which conduct animal testing.

Those that lose a full mark have no, or inadequate, policies for their own-brand products and ingredients.

Although Planet Organic sells a range of non-own-brand cosmetic products that are listed as vegan and vegetarian, the company has no clear no-animal testing policy for other cosmetics it sells, and therefore loses a mark in this category.

Bee welfare

Given the media coverage surrounding bee populations and the wider insect apocalypse, you may expect companies to be supporting initiatives that reverse this trend.

Co-op, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have indeed all run programmes to assist bee populations which focus on biodiversity and/or habitat. Abel and Cole has also worked with charities such as Friends of the Earth to raise funds for the Save the Bees campaign.

However, none of the companies that sell own brand honey have policies to address bee welfare.
 
Ethical Consumer’s shopping guide to Honey, produced in collaboration with Friends of the Earth, uncovered a number of questionable practices in honey production, such as clipping wings, the culling of hives after honey is collected, and over-extracting honey.

We also found that few organisations were putting pressure on companies and beekeepers in general to restrict these practices. Therefore we urge supermarkets to include bees in their animal welfare strategies.

Cocoa

Child labour in West African cocoa production – sometimes involving slavery and trafficking – may be old news but it’s sadly still very relevant today. Evidence suggests that the response from chocolate companies, retailers and the international community has been woefully inadequate:

The 2018 Cocoa Barometer, a civil society report that reviews current sustainability developments in the cocoa sector, reads:

“Not a single company or government is anywhere near reaching the sector-wide objective of the elimination of child labour, and not even near their commitments of a 70% reduction of child labour by 2020”

We have, therefore, marked companies down in the Workers’ Rights category if they sell own-brand products containing uncertified cocoa, on the basis that two decades is long enough to get their supply chains in order. We look for Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance or UTZ certification.

Although Tesco recently announced that all cocoa in its own-brand chocolate products was certified by the Rainforest Alliance, this did not apply to its cocoa products sold outside the UK. It, therefore, loses a mark under Workers’ Rights as Ethical Consumer expects global companies to be addressing issues throughout their supply chains, not just the UK.

Lidl, Co-op, Suma, Abel & Cole and Unicorn all source 100% certified cocoa, and don’t lose a mark.

Image: Cocoa production

Cotton

Cotton is a problematic crop for three key reasons. Firstly, forced labour is rife in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, a source of much of Europe’s cotton. It is also highly chemically intensive, covering roughly 2.78% of global arable land, but accounting for 12.34% of all insecticide sales and 3.94% of herbicide sales. Thirdly, genetically modified cotton accounted for 80% of cotton grown in 2017.

Companies selling own-brand cotton products are therefore marked down in three categories if they have inadequate policies addressing the above three issues, Workers’ Rights, Pollution and Toxics and Controversial Technologies.

Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose have targets for sourcing sustainable cotton but have not yet achieved them.

Lidl, Marks and Spencer and Tesco are addressing cotton sourcing from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan but have not yet eliminated GMOs from their cotton supply chains or indeed grown all their cotton using organic methods. Walmart and Morrisons do not have cotton sourcing policies despite selling own-brand clothes and Aldi’s policy lacks detail and is not clearly applied to the whole group.

This rating did not apply to Iceland, Booths, Co-op, Suma, Essential, Infinity, Ocado, Spar, Abel & Cole, Riverfords, HISBE, Unicorn, BigBarn and Planet Organic as they don’t appear to sell own-brand cotton products

Environmental Reporting

A negative mark in this category does not necessarily reflect poor environmental performance – some of the companies at the top of the table do seem to have ingrained environmental values throughout their business models. 

However, they get rated poorly as they do not publish environmental targets and independently verified performance data, which is currently how we rate environmental reporting.

For example, Riverfords is an organic company, does not use air freight, is working to minimise packaging throughout its supply chain, prioritises seasonal and British produce, has an interesting regional farm model and has worked with the University of Exeter to assess its environmental impacts and carbon footprint.

Abel & Cole, Infinity, Suma, and Essential also appear to have better performance than reporting. 

Unicorn, HISBE and Marks and Spencer are the only companies in this guide to receive Ethical Consumer’s best rating for Environmental Reporting.

Of particular interest is Unicorn’s creative approach to reducing its impacts: it has a self-imposed carbon tax that contributes to the work of Trees for Life in restoring the Caledonian Forest; it allocates an annual amount equivalent to 5% of its total wage bill to projects working towards a more sustainable world and it offers free bike repairs for its employees.

HISBE is also interesting in that it uses Ethical Consumer’s ratings in guiding the products it stocks!

Fish

The sustainability of fish sources is an issue of increasing concern to consumers and campaigners.

Those who want to choose certified sustainable, traceable wild seafood can opt for Marine Stewardship Council certified products – just look for the blue MSC tick logo on products.

In 2018, MSC announced Aldi as the supermarket offering the “largest proportion of sustainable seafood in the UK, ahead of big supermarkets Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, and Iceland”. Its 2018 research shows a big difference in the availability of certified seafood in supermarkets, as highlighted in this table:

Supermarket % certified sustainable by MSC 
Aldi 80
Sainsbury's 76
Lidl 72
Waitrose 67
Co-op 61
Tesco 48
ASDA 38
M&S 19
Morrisons 4
Iceland 3

Companies in this guide not covered by the MSC league table have the following policies in place:

  • HISBE carry the Fish4Ever lines in tins and, for fresh fish, it refers to MSC guides ‘as much as possible’.
  • Riverford works with Fish for Thought, a small, family-owned business in Cornwall, offering line-caught fish only. Planet Organic’s fish are said to fall under Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) ‘Fish to Eat’ list
  • Abel & Cole Is a Platinum Company Member of the MCS, with all of its seafood coming from fisheries and farms that were a lower risk of harming the marine environment through overfishing and habitat damage.
  • BigBarn does not appear to have a policy of fish sourcing; relying on customers completing reviews and feedback forms to question values of the producers and products. 
  • No policies could be found for Booths and Ocado. 
  • Spar had a sustainable fishing policy but didn’t state the % of its seafood products that were certified sustainable by the MSC.

MSC’s standards were recently challenged by the On the Hook campaign, that is pushing for an independent review after it re-certified the world’s largest tuna fishery as sustainable, which On the Hook argues is not the case.

For more information about MSC certification’s strengths and weaknesses, see Ethical Consumer’s product guide to Tuna.

Image: palm oil production
ECRA - SB

Palm Oil

Said to be found in 50% of supermarket products, from food to cleaners to cosmetics, palm oil is top of the controversial ingredients list.

Palm oil production at its worst fuels deforestation and land grabs; negatively affecting local communities and biodiversity.

At its best, palm oil production offers a reliable income stream for growers and is the most productive oil crop per area of land. It can also be grown using organic methods, without resulting in deforestation or the conversion of peatland to agriculture.

However, the RSPO, established to support the industry in shifting to more sustainable production practices, lacks bite. Small improvements are being made: at the end of 2018, its members voted to include ‘no deforestation’ and ‘no new planting on peat’ criteria in its standards. But this will take around two years to implement.

Going palm oil free is therefore gaining more traction in response to the industry’s slow response. 

Due to its high productivity, replacing palm oil in products with other vegetable oils such as soya and rapeseed could simply shift issues such as deforestation to another oil supply chain if not holistically tackled.

It has also been argued that disengaging with the palm oil industry, by removing or boycotting palm oil, could result in reduced pressure being placed on the global industry to improve practice. Globally the biggest importers of palm oil are China and India where palm sustainability is currently low down on agendas.

Taking into account the RSPOs weaknesses, Ethical Consumer has created its own palm oil rating that reviews all its forms (oil, kernel and derivatives), draws on RSPO annual progress reports and company CSR reports, and considers other positive company initiatives, e.g. reducing consumption, sustainably replacing palm oil, using segregated supply chains only, or organic certification.

Best rating for palm oil

Supermarkets that score a best Ethical Consumer rating for their approach to palm oil include: Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Suma (avoids where possible, 50% organic, rest RSPO certified), Essential (avoids where possible, rest RSPO certified), Abel and Cole, Riverford and Unicorn (certified organic or RSPO-certified via segregated mechanism).

Iceland has opted for the palm oil-free route after much deliberation, pledging “to remove palm oil from own label foods until a truly sustainable (zero deforestation) solution is available on the mass market”. It comments:

“removing palm oil represents a huge technical challenge: it is not simply a matter of switching to a substitute ingredient. We have switched to alternative oils and fats that do not cause tropical deforestation. In the main these are sunflower and rapeseed oil.”

Middle rating for palm oil

Our middle rating for palm oil sourcing goes to: Aldi, Asda, Co-op Group. Tesco, Lidl, and Morrisons.

Worst rating for palm oil

Our worst rating for palm oil sourcing goes to: Booths, Ocado and Spar Foods.

BigBarn, HISBE, and Planet Organic were not rated in this category as they do not appear to produce own-brand products.

Image: Palm Oil deforestation

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 Co-op Group, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Suma. 

Asda, Waitrose, Lidl, Aldi all receive our middle rating.

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

Living wage

With poverty found along food supply chains – from field to checkout – paying a real living wage to all workers is strategically key to addressing economic poverty. The National Living Wage Foundation puts the living wage at £9 for the UK and £10.55 in London.

Supermarkets that pay a real living wage to UK staff include Unicorn, HISBE, Lidl, and Aldi.

A sustainable food network

Your local independent wholefood shop is a great option for more sustainable weekly food shops, as highlighted by Unicorn Grocery, HISBE and Planet Organic.

Unfortunately, there no longer appears to be a central, up-to-date directory of wholefood shops in the UK. Time to get exploring?

A number of zero-waste shops have sprouted across the country, complementing the wholefood network.

Often independently run, they offer easy options for avoiding plastics, provide refilling services (nut butter and plant milks are offered by some) and aim to reduce food waste by encouraging you to buy only what you need.

See a list of 59 zero waste shops in the UK >

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

Included in this guide are EssentialSuma and Infinity. All score well and offer UK wide deliveries, but beware – each has different minimum delivery requirements.

Other wholesalers recommended by Sustain include:

  • Greencity, Glasgow (0141 554 7633). Delivers in and around Scotland.
  • Highland Wholefoods, Inverness (01463 712393). Delivers to the Highlands.
  • Lembas, Sheffield (0114 258 6056). Delivers within an approximate 90-mile radius of Sheffield.
  • Rainbow Wholefoods, Norwich (01603 625560). Delivers across East Anglia and beyond.

A range of companies offer organic veg (and other food) boxes, either for doorstep delivery or local collection.

Although we have covered the national market leaders in this guide – Riverford Organics and Abel & Cole – many other local and inspiring options exist. 

The Soil Association’s website offers a ‘find an organic veg box’ tool to help you find your nearest veg box.

Growing Communities in London and Manchester Veg Box People are just two examples of schemes that also provide a social good, helping to make local food production not only viable but vibrant.

Found across the land, farmers’ markets link local customers with local food producers; building local food communities and networks of support.

www.farma.org.uk provides a useful directory of markets, shops and farms where you can pick your own and buy direct from the farm gate. 
 

OFN UK was launched in 2016 and is a co-operative of producers and food enterprises that is growing quickly.

Producers grow, make, bake, rear, butcher and ferment while Food Hubs sell the produce.

Producers and Hubs can create online shops or farmers’ markets that build direct trading relationships with customers.

OFN states:

“We know that good food can transform our planet and our society. We also know that making values-driven food enterprise work takes commitment, perseverance, partnerships and support.”
 

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is “a partnership between farmers and consumers in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming are shared".

It is one of the most radical ways that we can re-take control and ownership of our food system.” Often associated with fresh veg in the UK, the CSA model is also being used to produce other stuff such as bread and coffee.

There are different ways that consumers, or CSA members, can be involved in the production of their food – through ownership or investment in a farm or through providing labour. Visit the CSA website to find a CSA near you.

Whether in your back or front garden, on a local allotment site or community garden, growing some of your own food can be a hugely rewarding process and is a great way to re-connect with the seasons.

In addition to books and gardener friends, there are some great online resources to support you on your growing journey, including:

Charles Dowding’s website on No Dig Gardening.

Garden Organic’s ‘Grow Your Own’ cards.

Permaculture Association’s Knowledge Base.

Company behind the brand

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.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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