The Worst Meat and Dairy Greenwashing by UK Supermarkets in 2023

3rd Jan 24 by Liam Lysaght

Retailers have repeatedly promised climate action, yet year on year their words speak far louder than their results.

For the UK supermarkets, the holiday season is in full swing, nowhere more evident than in the sector’s annual festive advert charm offensive – no surprise, in a year when customer trust has hit its lowest level since the horsemeat scandal in February 2013.

People are right to be sceptical of an industry that has recorded massive profits in 2023, even amid the Cost of Living Crisis. In March 2023, the ONS reported that UK food inflation had increased to 19.1%, its highest levels in 40 years; just 7 months later, Tesco raised its annual profit forecast to £2.7bn. These figures are a crucial reminder that supermarkets do not have the public’s best interests at heart.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in their climate plans, or lack thereof. Our 2023 report ‘Greenwash Grocers drew attention to the greenwash gimmicks, dodgy data reporting, and climate crisis profiteering taking place in UK supermarkets every day. Across the board, we found that retailers were failing to detail how they would meet their Net Zero targets – if they even had them. Most refused to name the link between the climate crisis and their own sales of meat and dairy; none had a target for reducing these sales.

As 2023 draws to a close, we’re revisiting the retail sector’s greenwash greatest hits, by comparing what they say against the Competition and Market Authorities ‘Green Claims Code’ [1] which sets out rules for how companies make environmental claims. Here are a few of the year’s worst greenwash gimmicks for retailers’ meat and dairy emissions.

Waitrose’s Leckford Estate

The Claim

Waitrose claims to be “the only supermarket to own [their] own farm”, Leckford Estate, which they market to demonstrate their green credentials. Waitrose claim Leckford is “driving change through our farming techniques, responsible sourcing of products, wasting less and our target of becoming carbon net zero.” Most recently, they promoted that Leckford’s tractors are powered by methane produced by cow manure from the estate.

The Problem

Leckford Estate serves as a distraction from the realities of Waitrose’s supply chains, and its claims simply aren’t meaningful in the scale of the business, as required by the Green Claims Code. Every year, Leckford is set to produce a mere “150 beef cattle”, which hardly enters into the 5% of the country’s groceries that pass through Waitrose supermarkets. The overwhelming majority of Waitrose’s beef, let alone its other meat products, are effectively greenwashed by the loud celebration of minor initiatives at Leckford. By recalling the “romanticised vision of the farm”, Leckford leans on the power of nostalgia to hoodwink Waitrose customers into a false sense of security that their products are part of the climate solution – that the qualities of Leckford beef apply to the whole supply chain, which they don’t. The Times described it as a “communist show village” of “comfortable middle classness”.

Whilst Waitrose champions the idea that Leckford ‘leads by example’, the potential of scaling up these initiatives is equally dangerous. Firstly, without a target to reduce its overall sales of meat and dairy as recommended by the Climate Change Committee, Waitrose risks misleading the public that its methods could sustainably meet current demand. If Leckford scaled up its current 2,800 acre estate to cover every single acre of available pasture land in the UK, it would still only be able to produce a quarter of the 2,800,000 cattle currently slaughtered in the UK each year. [2] In other words, it would need to cover almost the entire land area (88.1%) of the UK to meet our current beef consumption, bulldozing everything into beef pastures and Leckford visitor centres on the way.

Waitrose’s suggested ‘lead by example’ initiatives are not fair and meaningful in comparison to its genuine day-to-day operations, as required by the Green Claims Code. In advertising, claims relating to one part of a product or service shouldn’t mislead people about the overall impact of the product or business. This is exactly what Waitrose’s promotion of Leckford Estate does, and without an overall meat and dairy reduction target to accompany, the overall claim of Leckford to be “driving change” for the John Lewis Partnership’s 2050 Net Zero target remains unsubstantiated at best.

Sainsbury’s Reduced Carbon Beef

The Claim

Sainsbury’s is next on our (hit) list, with its October launch of ‘Reduced Carbon Beef’.

The retailer claims that its new Taste the Difference Aberdeen Angus range offers 25% lower CO2 equivalent emissions than the ‘industry standard’ for beef. After some pressure, Sainsbury’s published the ‘industry standard’ marker at 32.14kg Co2e per kg of beef on the shelf, which would out their new product at 24.105kg of CO2e per kg of beef. 

The Problem

Sainsbury’s has not made their methodology available for public scrutiny. This  claim appears to rest on earlier slaughter for the animals (not mentioned on the packaging) with few further details provided. According to the CMA, green claims must be clear, unambiguous, and substantiated, which this is not.

This claim also omits more important information: a fair and meaningful comparison to plant-based alternatives. 25.105kg of CO2e might get you 1kg of Sainsbury’s Lower Carbon Beef, but for the same carbon budget, you could produce over 7.6kg of tofu (a complete protein), 24.5kg of peas, or a whopping 56kg of nuts. Even ‘Lower Carbon Beef’ is incredibly carbon intensive against the alternatives, which Sainsbury’s choose not to point out to their customers. As we pointed out in our Greenwash Grocers report, Sainsbury’s has no target for reducing its overall sales of meat and dairy, without which it cannot hope to meet its net zero target for all its emissions.

Aldi’s Carbon Neutral Claim

The Claim

In July, we caught Aldi UK out for making the outrageous claim of being ‘Carbon Neutral since January 2019’ on their website. What they didn’t mention was that this ‘Carbon Neutral’ claim excludes over 99% of their emissions.

The Problem

Carbon Neutral is commonly used to refer to Scopes 1 and 2 emissions, essentially the climate cost of businesses keeping the shops open and the lights on. What Aldi didn’t say on their website is that less than 1% of their emissions are in Scopes 1 and 2. Over 99% are Scope 3 emissions, which we can think of as the climate cost of everything on the shelves that the business sells to make money. By using corporate jargon, Aldi UK attempted to hide from their responsibilities for meaningful climate action, and contravene the Green Claims Code requirement that claims are clearly set out and can be understood by all.

After we called this out by reporting Aldi to the Advertising Standards Authority, Aldi tweaked the claim on their website to specify that it only applies to ‘Scope 1 & 2’, but have left the claim up. Even with the clarification, leaning on this problematic jargon leaves the claim unclear and ambiguous, leaving customers to think that Aldi’s climate leadership is stronger than the reality. Even if a visitor to the website is familiar with the meaning of different ‘Scopes’, they may not know Aldi’s specific emissions breakdown, tucked away in company reports. The claim is meaningless when put fairly in context against their Scope 3 emissions, which dominate their business activities.

Supermarkets must step up to the plate

Meat and dairy reduction constitutes a fundamental element of reaching net zero – academic research showed in 2020 even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from the global food system alone would drive the world beyond 1.5 degrees of warming. These are just three examples of the way supermarkets are systematically engaged in activities which ultimately fail the test of climate leadership – are they reducing their overall emissions, fast, on a clear and transparent pathway to net zero?

Retailers have repeatedly promised climate action, yet year on year their words speak far louder than their results. If businesses won’t clear up their act and get on with the meaningful job of facing up to the climate crisis, regulators will need to show them where the line is, and how far they’ve gone in crossing it.

[1] CMA Guidelines

  1. Claims must be truthful and accurate
  2. Claims must be clear and unambiguous
  3. Claims must not omit or hide important relevant information
  4. Comparisons must be fair and meaningful
  5. Claims must consider the full life cycle of the product
  6. Claims must be substantiated

[2] Leckford is a 2,800 acre estate slaughtering 150 cattle each year (Waitrose). The United Kingdom is 22% pasture land, representing 13,252,261.61 Acres (ONS). 13,252,261.61 divided by 2,800 is 4732.95 – the number of Leckford Estates that could fit into the UK’s pastureland. 4732.95 slaughtering 150 beef cows per year each would collectively slaughter 709,942.5 beef cows per year. In total, the UK currently slaughters 2,844,000 cattle per year (Agriculture in the UK, 2022). 2,844,000 divided by 709,942.5 is 4.006. 22 multiplied by 4.006 is 88.1%.


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