I wrote the blog below for the Food Ethics Council before the horse meat scandal blew up. I think it’s even more relevant now.
When I challenged Justin King, CEO of Sainsbury’s about not applying the same environmental standards across all the products sold through his stores, he replied that he was giving consumers choice. But what sort of choice is this? Do we really want to be worried that when buying branded goods we might be supporting the destruction of rainforests, polluting rivers or worsening climate change? I don’t think so.
I applaud Sainsbury’s 20 by 20 Sustainability Plan. Justin King explains in the foreword that this is ‘a new cornerstone of our business strategy designed to accelerate Sainsbury’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility and excellence”. He goes on to explain that the supermarket giant has 21 million customers a week, 150,000 colleagues and over 2000 suppliers. But he doesn’t give us an idea of what proportion of transactions are actually impacted by the policy, given that it only applies to Sainsbury’s own-brand products.
My view is that if a company has values and really believes in what it’s doing, the initiatives it takes should apply to all the products they sell. This would signal to consumers that the policies are not just about making money, but about making sure the company is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Mr King’s response to me was to say that “no business in retail will be successful by denying large number of consumers the opportunity to buy what they want.” So his view means that he’s comfortable with Sainsbury’s customers buying environmentally destructive products, if they choose to do so. And this assumes that consumers know about the impacts of the choices they’re making, which I’m not convinced they do.
Surely, the M&S approach is better. They are in the fortunate position of stocking almost exclusively own-brand products. One advantage of this is that they can apply their environmental and ethical standards right across the board. As a customer, this is rather relaxing. You know that M&S have used their expertise to work out the optimum ethical standards across a range of issues from energy efficiency and waste minimisation to food miles and animal welfare. And, if you want to know where they stand on these issues you can look on their website.
I probably have a better idea than most about the environmental impacts of the products I buy, but I don’t want to worry about each choice I make, when I’m in a store. I’d far rather know that the difficult decisions have been made for me – and that the standards I support have been applied to everything on offer.
To be fair, I do feel this when buying fish from Sainsbury’s. They have excellent policies on sustainable fishing practices – and they’re encouraging their customers to vary the types of fish they buy, to reduce the pressure on the most popular fish species, such as tuna, cod, salmon, haddock and prawns. They’re also the largest UK retailer of MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) sustainable fish products.
By the end of 2013, they say that around 90% of the wild fish they sell will have MSC certification. If they ever get to 100%, they’ll have to admit that this is denying consumers a choice – that’s the choice to buy unsustainable fish! Doesn’t this show that they really believe in supporting sustainable fishing practices? And, if that’s the case, then why not support other sustainability issues with equal vigour?
Don’t be fooled by the argument that Sainsbury’s can’t change the practices of their larger suppliers. They’re a huge customer and if they set rigorous environmental standards to all the products they sell, you can be sure that the changes they require will be made. If this happened, customers could then be sure that they’re offering products and services that can be trusted – as they claim in their 20 by 20 Sustainability Plan. I’d also be reassured that they actually believe in what they’re doing – and my choice would then be to shop at Sainsbury’s. That’s a choice worth having.