local food columnI recently wrote a guide to supermarkets for Ethical Consumer Magazine. In doing so, it became clear that despite some improvements in reporting and practice, the supermarket model is built on ethically dubious foundations.

A quick scan of supermarkets’ shelves highlight a range of more ethical goods such as Fairtrade, organic and MSC-certified products and an increasing range of free range, vegan and plastic-free options. Alongside these more ethical options, improvements are also being made around some supermarkets’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting. Highlights including Iceland’s recent Palm Oil free stance and Tesco’s move towards all cocoa in its UK own-brand products being Rainforest Alliance certified.

However there continues to be systemic issues in the supermarket model and the wider industrial food system. These are highlighted by the Food Foundation’s ‘Broken Plate’ report that presents ten unhealthy signs of our current food system. 46% of food and drink advertising goes on confectionary, sweet and savoury snacks and soft drinks; while only 2.5% goes on fruit and vegetables. Of the foods reviewed, unhealthy foods tend to be three times cheaper than healthy food; influencing unhealthy diet choices. 17.6% of employees of the food industry earn the minimum wage, compared to 7% of workers across the UK. The poorest 10% of UK households would need to spend 74% of their disposable income on food to meet the Eatwell Guide costs – the Government’s official healthy eating guide. This is compared to only 6% in the richest 10%.

Put simply, supermarkets’ true operating costs continue to be borne by workers throughout their supply chains, animal species in their millions, public health and the health of earth’s ecosystems. These issues are explored further in the Ethical Consumer guide.

The current approach seems to be ‘fix issues as and when they appear’. But often quick solutions don’t address systemic issues. To quote Walter Lewis: “When a system is as broke as the food system of the western world, it is no good tinkering around the edges. A radical new approach – or approaches – is required. A case is presented for moving towards farming and growing systems which are actively regenerative of environment and community.”

Many of these ‘radical new approaches’ have arguably been around for a while in the form of organic+ CSA schemes; veg boxes; wholefood shops; food cooperatives etc. Case studies exist that demonstrate how a mission-orientated business can humbly tackle complex supply chains without losing sight of its core values e.g. The Unicorn in Manchester.

After writing the guide I really questioned: are our ‘super’ markets capable of shifting beyond certification schemes and short-termism towards more long term and regenerative ways of working?



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