Time for supermarkets to meat the challenge

26th Jan 21 by Jessica Sinclair Taylor, Head of Policy

The vast majority of supermarkets’ climate burden lies in the goods they sell – reducing meat and dairy must be on their climate agenda.

Read Feedback’s new Market Brief Meating the climate challenge: Why supermarkets must urgently cut their meat and dairy sales

Last week Tesco launched its first ‘Green Bond’ – an event which went unsurprisingly largely unreported amid spiralling Coronavirus crisis in the UK and the inauguration of President Biden. The bond essentially allows Tesco to raise capital – a cool 750 million euros – against its Sustainability Performance Targets. These targets aim to reduce Tesco’s global Greenhouse Gas emissions from its direct activities – like energy used for heating and cooling stores and warehouses, delivery fleets and refrigerant gas leaks – by 60% by 2025, against a 2015 baseline.

While Tesco is an undoubted leader among UK retailers on sustainability transparency it is worth interrogating this news a little more closely. And indeed, there is a catch: while Tesco does have a target to reduce the emissions from the production of the goods it sells (by 17% by 2030), this target is not included in the list of KPIs against which it is raising the money.

This is a more serious omission than it may seem: emissions created in retailers supply chains, in the production of the goods they sell us, are up to seven times higher than those from their direct operations (like heating and cooling systems in shops and warehouses, or emissions from transporting goods). By ignoring the climate burden of the goods they sell, retailers like Tesco are effectively framing themselves as supermarkets with the emissions reduction strategies of a lorry company. While very few retailers publish a full breakdown of emissions produced in their supply chain, figures from a small Dutch retailer, Ahold Delhaize, suggest that its supply chain emissions dwarf its direct emissions by 19 times, and that meat fish and dairy makes up 38% of its supply chain emissions.

Few retailers match this level of reporting and target setting – but they will have to catch up, and fast, as investors and the public ask supermarkets to live up to sustainability claims. Nor will ‘this is hard to measure’ count as an excuse for much longer. And so to the meat of the matter – why retailers must square up to the role of animal agriculture in driving climate impacts. Today, Feedback publishes a new brief arguing:

  • Action is urgent on meat and dairy consumption

It’s more than apparent that industrial meat production is fanning the flames of the climate crisis – from chicken and pork fed on soya grown on deforested land in Brazil, to the excessive quantities of red meat we consume in the compared to the world average. A very recent systematic review of 18 academic studies showed consistent evidence of positive health impacts and low environmental footprints of diets congruent with government dietary guidelines, which suggest a lower consumption of meat and dairy. These health and environmental benefits don’t require universal veganism, but they do require a massive reduction of consumption of the most damaging forms of meat, as well as large-scale changes across the agricultural system to integrate agro-ecological and ‘livestock on leftovers’ approaches to producing the meat and dairy we do eat. Those changes will need policy leadership, but in the short-term, they’ll also need action from the most powerful businesses in our supply chain – retailers.

  • Supermarkets are uniquely placed to lead the way

While retailers tend to be squeamish about acknowledging their enormous influence on their shoppers’ food choices, the evidence is clear: food decisions are deeply influenced by our ‘food environment’ and supermarkets play a major role in shaping those environments. The surge in meat consumption in 2020 (sausage sales alone were up 17%) demonstrates the difficulty of resisting a food which has long been marketed to us as redolent of comfort and ‘treating yourself’. Yet retailer interventions can and do yield behaviour change: the Collaboration for Healthier Lives has evidenced that ‘nudges’ in-store (e.g. layout of goods, promotions and marketing) can change purchasing decisions.

  • Without retailer action, change may come too late

Finally, and most importantly, while there is growing interest in sustainable and healthy diets, a shift of the scale needed will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without the collaboration and active participation of retailers – one of the few businesses with a reach across geographical locations and communities. If anything, the persistence of high meat sales, alongside an uptick of interest in flexitarianism and plant-based eating has indicated that providing choice alone will not answer without addressing the invisible drivers of high meat consumption, like the way food is marketed and branding (for a indicative look at the way supermarkets continue to resist the incentive to sell more meat as well as more plant-based products, see the persistence of marketing like ‘fake farm’ labels which continue to give an misleadingly bucolic impression of the way factory farmed meat is produced).

Increasingly, big food companies are responding to their social responsibility to lead the way on addressing the vast climate burden of our food system, with good reason. As CSR champions steel themselves to get their teeth into their company’s supply chain emissions problem, meat and dairy will have to be centre plate. Feedback will be monitoring commitments and action in the run up to our second retailer scorecard on meat and dairy reduction – watch this space.

What can you do next?

Follow us on Instagram to see our work in action.

Follow us