Opinion: What Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets should really do to fight climate change


Photo credit: PETA.

By Anders Lorenzen

The UK supermarket Sainsbury’s recently announced an ambitious climate plan which of course is a welcome step. They can now be considered the leading UK supermarket in tackling the climate crisis, and this should win them accolades and new customers. But there are several other climate steps which could have far more impact, and which are not mentioned in the plan. But these are steps that all supermarkets should take if they are serious about tackling the climate crisis. 

Every supermarket or outlet which sells food and is serious about tackling the climate crisis should look to raising the price of unsustainable products, to reflect the true price for the climate. In reality, this should have been led by governments, but introducing a meat tax is unlikely to happen. Therefore, supermarkets like Sainsbury’s should be leading the way. 

Raising the price on the most unsustainable products such as meat and, in particular beef and lamb, through a meat tax would be a no brainer. In the lack, thereof supermarkets should be using pricing signals to tempt people away from the most carbon-intensive products. We know that the rising consumption of meat not only increases emissions but harms nature and biodiversity. The price of these products should reflect the true carbon cost. 

In addition, the cheapest meat on the supermarket shelves can’t ever be produced in a sustainable and animal welfare way. And by stocking these products supermarkets are supporting the most destructive way of farming, factory farming. In addition, supermarkets should also reduce the number of meat products they stock and increase plant-based food. 

The PR machine of Sainsbury’s has promoted the number of plant-based foods they have on offer; but walking up and down the aisles of supermarkets, while the meat is not as dominant as before, it is still king. The approach they take seems to change only in line with consumer demand and does not aim to actually change that consumer demand.  If you as a company want to be on the front line of climate action you must be brave and take bold steps.

Part of the problem is that eco-conscious consumers who want to change their behaviours don’t know where to start or how to calculate which products impact the climate the most as they’re not given the tools to do so. A pricing signal would certainly help shift things in the right direction. Raise the prices on harmful food and lower them on the products with the least impacts. Much of the plant-based food is in many cases at least or sometimes even more expensive than meat and animal products. Products should be fairly costed on their carbon footprint

This would be an easy action for a supermarket to take as they don’t have to throw lots of extra capital into it. The revenue earned for the higher cost of meat products could be used to subsidies low-carbon products. This should be done purely on a carbon footprint per product basis. The higher the footprint the more expensive the products become.

In addition to this, food labelling should clearly state the carbon footprint of the product with colour coding to indicate how much the particular product contributes to carbon pollution. For instance, products that cause deforestation such as Brazilian beef could be colour coded dark red. A more controversial idea would be to put big warning labels on the most damaging products akin to the cancer warning on cigarette packets.

Of course, the easiest solution would be for the UK government to take the lead and legislate for a meat tax and carbon labelling, but in the absence of this action, the supermarkets themselves must take the lead.

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