Retailers say one thing and do another on meat and climate.
Last month, amid the Veganuary offers, eight of the UK’s supermarkets signed on to support Let’s Eat Balanced, a campaign that promotes increased consumption of British meat and dairy on health grounds.
Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, Co-op, Asda, Aldi, Morrisons, and Lidl all lent their support to the AHDB’s annual PR push, promoting the campaign to their customers in the aisles, in print, and online. This year, the campaign made a nutritional argument for meat consumption, with a particular focus on B12.
As one academic has commented, a nutritional argument for meat consumption in the UK, a country which already eats too much meat, “flies directly in the face of science”. So it’s an ironic choice for eight retailers aligned to the Science Based Targets initiative.
Worse, by ignoring the science in favour of the AHDB’s industry interests, these retailers are flouting their own climate commitments and promises to their customers. This hypocrisy comes with huge risks to retailers’ reputations and climate action.
All eight supermarkets have signed up to Wrap’s Courtauld Commitment 2030; all, bar Asda, are part of the Retailer Net Zero Collaboration Action Programme; and five have signed the WWF Retailers’ Commitment to Nature. All these commitments – alongside the retailers’ own statements – represent a promise to urgently cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The supermarkets know they cannot keep these promises without equally urgent action on meat and dairy sales. In total, 95%-99% of retailer emissions come from the products they sell and their supply chains, and around half of these emissions come from meat and dairy alone.
No retail net zero plan is credible without a plan to curb high sales of meat and dairy. It is an integral part of the Climate Change Committee’s national net zero pathway. So, it’s extraordinary that, rather than continue the vital work of curbing emissions and shifting shoppers towards sustainable and healthy diets, retailers are self-sabotaging by signing over valuable in-store real estate to the British meat lobby.
The campaign’s use of ‘balanced’ language serves as a smokescreen, as its primary objective is to boost meat and dairy sales – the AHDB is not shy about this goal. Retailers have either been hopelessly duped into making life difficult for themselves when it comes to finally tackling their emissions footprints – unlikely – or they simply have no intention of making good on those commitments at all.
Without meaningful action, voluntary pledges are quickly losing public trust. Regulators like the Competition & Markets Authority and Advertising Standards Authority, to whom we have submitted a complaint about Let’s Eat Balanced, are tightening their rules. Incoming legislation will hand the CMA greater powers to fine companies infringing rules, including on green claims. And as elections loom in 2024, new ministers will be taking a hard look at our food system: they are increasingly unlikely to see a trustworthy grocery sector.
Perhaps retailers could encourage the AHDB to remember the often-neglected ‘H’ in its name: horticulture. Investing resources into a campaign that promotes fruit, vegetables, or British-grown pulses at the point of sale could contribute to sustainable diets that support British farming, nature, and public health.
If retailers are serious about net zero, we now need to see the goods – no more promises, roundtables and measurement protocol tweaks. We need serious plans, implemented at pace, to support sustainable diets. This campaign is a blunder in the wrong direction.