Waitrose, Co-op and Marks & Spencer trailing other retailers

14th Jun 18 by Christina O'Sullivan

Despite many laudable initiatives to tackle food waste, supermarkets are so far failing to successfully reduce waste.

We ranked the UK’s top ten supermarkets based on publicly available information on their work to reduce food waste. Our ranking assessed the supermarkets against the food use hierarchy which requires that prevention be the priority towards tackling waste.

Tesco is ranked at number one, while Waitrose came out at the bottom of the pack. Other supermarkets known for their strong reputations on sustainability, including Co-op and Marks & Spencer, also scored poorly. The ranking assessed the supermarkets against four categories of best practice in addressing waste. The categories included: action to prevent food waste, such as measuring and publishing data on food waste in their supply chain and adopting targets to cut waste; action to make sure that edible surplus food reaches people in need through charities, rather than being thrown away; action to redirect suitable inedible food surplus to be made into animal feed; action to avoid edible food being used to produce bio-gas instead of being eaten. The principles of this best practice are enshrined in UK law under the Waste Regulations 2011, which require all businesses to make reasonable efforts to address their surplus and waste according to the waste hierarchy.

Initiatives by Tesco that ensured they scored highly include:

  • The first supermarket to publish third party audited food waste data.
  • The first supermarket to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goal of halving food
    waste from farm to fork by 2030.
  • Committed to extending transparency to include measurement of food waste in its
    supply chain.
  • Significantly increased quantity of food redistributed to people in need; donated 7975
    tonnes in 2017/17 representing a 40% increase on the previous year.
  • Working to help suppliers reduce food waste through initiatives such as marketing
    seasonal produce, creating a food waste hotline for suppliers and whole crop

Waitrose scored poorly on the waste scorecard:

  • Provides limited public data on food waste figures.
  • Redistributing small quantities of food in comparison to other retailers – Waitrose does not provide a total figure in tonnes concerning how much food is redistributed.
  • No programme for sending permissible food surplus to animal feed.

Waitrose did not perform dramatically worse most other retailers. We found that supermarkets are largely failing to get to grips with their waste, with aggregate figures for the industry finding food waste reduction has plateaued at around 200,000 tonnes since 2013. Waitrose and other supermarkets, including Co-op and Asda, lost points for failing to publicly provide either a headline figure or a comprehensive break down of where and how their food waste arose, and what they did with surplus food.

The scoring called into question whether retailers are implementing the waste hierarchy, which is a requirement under UK waste regulations but is currently unenforced. Data from the only supermarket which provides detailed statistics, Tesco, showed that large quantities of edible food, nearly 20,000 tonnes in 2017, were being used to produce bio-gas rather than feed people. The charity FareShare has been calling for government to offset the costs of charitable redistribution of food to ensure more surplus food reaches people in need. In addition, very few supermarkets were found to be making best use of inedible food waste, some of which can be made into animal feed.

Supermarkets also lost points in the ranking for their failure to acknowledge and address the ways in which their marketing and sales tactics cause food waste in the home, by encouraging people to buy more food than they need. Issues included special offers which encourage over-purchasing and removing confusing and unnecessary ‘best before’ labels.

Despite many laudable initiatives to tackle food waste, supermarkets are so far failing to successfully reduce waste in their stores, supply chains and customers’ homes. Our research has revealed that despite leadership from a few retailers, many lag behind on the most basic steps to further their food waste reduction, such as publishing transparent data and converting food surplus to animal feed. In addition, none of the supermarkets are truly getting to grips with how their marketing and sales tactics cause waste in their customers’ homes. This begs the question – is a ‘waste-free’ supermarket possible? The current evidence suggests that supermarkets’ business models, ownership structure and market clout inherently lead to waste generation from farm to fork. This report is a challenge to supermarkets to show us that their business model is not synonymous with food waste and that they can be part of a less wasteful food system that nourishes the planet.

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