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Government cannot meet key targets on health, waste, climate change and fair trade without tackling supermarkets

15 February 2008

Sustainable Development Commission report says too many supermarket practices are unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable

A Sustainable Development Commission review of policies affecting supermarkets has concluded that government cannot successfully combat obesity, waste, climate change and fair trade issues without a concerted approach to harness the power of supermarkets.

The report Green, Healthy and Fair - A review of the government's role in supporting sustainable supermarket food finds that:

• 5-a-day public health messages cannot succeed while high-calorie, low nutrient processed foods are promoted aggressively, making fresh produce appear expensive and unappealing by comparison

• Obesity and waste are being fuelled by multi-buy promotions, over-packaging and non-recyclable packaging

• Climate change policies aimed at reducing emissions from supermarket operations fail to adequately address transport issues, including goods transportation and the effect of planning laws on customers' car use

Over 70% of UK groceries are sold by four supermarket chains - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons. While the government maintains an official 'hands-off' approach to supermarkets, the Sustainable Development Commission found 19 Whitehall departments with a total of almost one hundred policy responsibilities related to supermarkets and food.

However, despite some encouraging initiatives, too many supermarket products and practices are still unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable.

Conflicting policies from different areas of government are also making it impossible to achieve targets - for example, Department of Health advice to eat more fish is cutting across attempts to preserve endangered fish stocks. And supermarkets and consumers are confused over the relative merits of 'local' food versus the value to overseas development of foods such as green beans airfreighted from Kenya.

Professor Tim Lang, Commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission, said:
"Government cannot resolve the problems of obesity, waste or climate change alone. Given the enormous influence wielded by supermarkets, working with them effectively is essential.

"There are many areas where the government and retailers are already working together, but government needs to be more ambitious. With public scrutiny of retailers' behaviour increasing, many supermarkets are keen to work with government to develop a green, healthy and fair food system. In fact, our research with supermarkets has shown that in areas such as climate change or recycling policy, they are often frustrated by the lack of clarity or long-term strategy on which they can plan for the future."

The Sustainable Development Commission identifies six priority areas for government and supermarket action: waste; nutrition and obesity; climate change; fair supply chains; ecosystems and water.

The UK has one of the worst records on dumping waste in landfill in Europe, and UK homes produce 5.2 million tonnes of food packaging waste and 6.7 million tonnes of food waste every year. Current packaging legislation is vague and poorly enforced allowing supermarkets to continue over-packaging products, passing the burden of recycling and waste on to consumers and local authorities.
Recommendations include:

• Defra must develop an ambitious Packaging Strategy to follow its Waste Strategy

Modern food consumption is a key contributor to obesity and diet-related disease including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. There is growing evidence that a healthy and seasonal diet, rich in fruit and vegetables, and containing less processed food and meat is also better for the planet, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions and less impact on ecosystems
Recommendations include:

• The government must use its influence to ensure supermarkets reformulate products and to shift the balance of promotions towards healthier products

• A single, mandatory front-of-pack system of nutrient labelling is essential to eliminate the confusion caused by multiple schemes

Food - including its production, transportation, refrigeration and waste - accounts for a fifth of the average UK household's greenhouse gas emissions - the single largest contribution. Meat and dairy, glasshouse vegetables, air-freighted produce, heavily processed foods and refrigeration are the main hotspots with disproportionately high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Recommendations include:

• The government must work with the food industry to set a clear agenda for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the whole food chain through to 2020, leading to at least at least 60% reductions by 2050

• Defra to communicate a clear timetable for phasing out HCFCs in refrigeration by 2015, to support development of alternatives to HFC refrigerants (including hydrocarbons), and to advise the supply chain on replacements for HCFCs and HFCs.

Stakeholders questioned by the Sustainable Development Commission were deeply concerned about supermarkets' poor record on treatment of suppliers. It is widely felt that the Office of Fair Trading Code of Practice to ensure buyer power does not lead to exploitation, is weak and not fit for purpose.
Recommendations include:

• The government must examine the role and remit of the Office of Fair Trading to ensure it safeguards fairness throughout supply chains

• The government must develop an enforceable definition of 'local' food, and promote fair trade standard systems incorporating environmental sustainability, instead of leaving it to NGOs

• Overseas aid policy must encourage sustainable development with increased access to trade, rather than focusing on trade alone

The demands of our food system are leading directly deforestation, devastation of fish stocks and soil degradation, impacting on the planet and threatening the livelihoods and rights of communities in developing countries. Even in the UK, intensive agriculture is affecting biodiversity, contributing to the destruction of hedgerows and wildlife.
Recommendations include:

• The Sustainable Development Commission recommends developing a system of universal sustainability standards - for example, a Green Tractor mark - developed by the government with industry input, to define a baseline for sustainable production standards

It takes an estimated 2,000 litres to produce the food consumed by the average UK citizen every day, none of which is accounted for in existing water strategies. Climate change and increased demand mean that water can no longer be considered a low-cost resource.
Recommendations include:

• A 'water footprint' system is needed to audit embedded water in products and supply chains

Download Green, Healthy and Fair - A review of the government's role in supporting sustainable supermarket food , for hard copies e-mail enquiries@sd-commission.gsi.gov.uk or call 020 7270 8498.

Notes to Editors

1. For more information and interviews, contact Rhian Thomas on 020 7270 8539 / 07825 106 803, or email rhian.thomas@sd-commission.org.uk

2. The Sustainable Development Commission is the Government's independent advisory body on sustainability issues, made up of 19 Commissioners and chaired by Jonathon Porritt. It reports directly to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland.

3. Green Healthy and Fair - A review of the government's role in supporting sustainable supermarket food is based on the Sustainable Development Commission's analysis of current policy as well as independent qualitative research carried out by Opinion Leader into the views of supermarkets and their stakeholders, and a workshop for retailers, government & NGOs on developing a vision for a sustainable food system

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