It’s easy to be cynical about the supermarkets. Especially when it comes to tackling food waste. Food campaigner Tristram Stuart says he’s had to fight the supermarkets “tooth and nail” to achieve the Damascene-like conversions recently seen among the supermarkets when it comes to their various wonky veg and other waste-saving and food redistribution schemes. And as columnist Joanna Blythman wrote when Tesco announced in June a commitment to redistribute all unsold edible food to charities from 2017, “putting a gloss on your waste problem by repackaging it as a food poverty solution… allows our giant retailers to bask in the role of philanthropists”.
There’s certainly a tendency towards ‘wastewash’ among the various programmes. And while some of the facts and statistics look impressive, it’s hard to distinguish between a significant achievement and brazen spin due to the lack of standard measurements: one will quote the tonnes of food delivered; another a percentage reduction; another how many meals that represents. Sometimes all three will be used in the same report, but without the comparative figures, depending (if you are being cynical) on what suits, or (if you were being kind), what they can manage to find. At any rate, there’s a lack of transparency to these efforts and initiatives that makes a cynical dismissal of all the various efforts and initiatives the easiest position.
But why should all be tarred with the same cynical brush? Surely credit should be given where it’s due.
That’s why for this Green Issue, The Grocer developed a methodology with which to rank the supermarkets. It was devised with the help of waste and environmental experts, who then provided scores using the criteria, while we also considered evidence proffered by the supermarkets themselves.
The results - and particularly our winner, Tesco - will surprise many, not least Joanna Blythman. But Tesco’s actions are worth closer inspection. It’s not perfect. It has a long way to go. And with a trifling £10m subsidy the government could achieve far more than Tesco can alone. Indeed, it could perform a kind of food waste alchemy, with the subsidy saving charities up to £200m. But for Tesco to be leading the way on food waste is amazing given all its other considerations right now. Some would say it has more important priorities to worry about than food waste. This week it came bottom among FTSE-100 companies in a corporate governance report. It’s still miles behind Lidl on price in our latest Grocer 33. Asda’s launched a new price war. And there’s the small matter of the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into its financial irregularities, which has really kicked off this week, with three former senior executives charged with two counts of fraud. But what could be more important than preventing food waste? What are we saying when with our cynicism? Would we really rather Tesco (et al) threw perfectly edible food away?