Dave Lewis

Source: David Bebber/WWF-UK

The former Tesco boss said industry needed to do ‘better and faster’ to achieve its own green goals

The grocery industry is not doing enough to mitigate its environmental impact, former Tesco CEO and now WWF chair Dave Lewis said as a new report by the NGO found supermarkets were on track to miss their own green targets.

WWF research out today warned supermarkets must step up action to meet the target to halve the environmental impact of UK shopping baskets by 2030.

The What’s in Store for the Planet 2023 report found that there were still “substantial gaps supermarkets must close to meet 2030 targets” across key areas of environmental impact, from climate emissions to deforestation, food waste and packaging.

WWF UK chair Dave Lewis told The Grocer that there had not been “enough progress” across the industry, whose efforts to minimise its climate footprint had been hindered by Covid-19 and the supply chain crisis, as well as government inaction.

Lewis was involved in the creation of the WWF’s sustainable basket metric in collaboration with Tesco five years ago, as a benchmark to track the progress of the supermarket in its pledge to slash its environmental.

That initiative has since grown to include other major supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

Retailers Commitment for Nature Group

“I think if you had started this a few years ago and projected where you want to be, are we behind where we hoped we would be? I think we have to say we are,” Lewis said. But he noted it was crucial for the industry to “stop debating small details about methodologies and measurement and actually put all 100% of our effort into the changes that are required to move the agenda forward”.

Lewis was “encouraged” by increased retailer engagement – 10 of the 11 major UK retailers, representing over 90% of the UK retail grocery market, now submit data on aspects of the WWF Basket.

The NGO has also just welcomed Aldi as the latest signatory of its Retailers Commitment for Nature Group, joining Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose in committing to halving the environmental impact of UK shopping baskets by 2030.

The report highlighted some “promising progress” in specific sectors – for instance, efforts have been made to tackle deforestation and conversion within palm oil supply chains, analysis showed, with 76% of palm oil in retailer supply chains reported to be RSPO certified.

However, this has not been matched in soy supply chains, with just 5% of soy verified to be deforestation and conversion-free.

Scope 3 emissions account for at least 94% of total reported emissions across all retailers, and there has been no indication yet that these are reducing across the sector.

These are currently calculated using average emissions data. Retailers needed to “rapidly switch” to using data specific to their supply chains, the WWF warned.

“I think the industry for a long time has debated things like methodologies, and no measurement is perfect but we now have a basket measurement that three-quarters of the UK food industry are saying they are going to use as a way of measuring the environmental impact on shopping basket”, Lewis said. The supermarkets that had signed up to the basket metric initiative had “performed slightly better than those who have not”, he added.

Support from government lacking

However, Lewis reiterated “the UK retailers can’t deliver this objective on their own” and need support from government on the regulatory front, particularly as much-delayed supply chain due diligence measures are still not in force.

The government committed to amending the Environment Act 2020 to include stronger anti-deforestation due diligence measures – in similar ways to the European Union’s new anti-deforestation law – but those have yet to be implemented.

“Some of these things can’t be left to the market, you need a policy framework,” Lewis said. “Some of that guidance around policy has been a little bit inconsistent over the two years, and so I think the big message is you need government policy to help the retailers with this direction.”

Attempts to better impact on sustainability and health slowing down

A recent Food Foundation report found government inaction had encouraged food companies to slow their efforts on health and sustainability.

The body’s State of the Nation’s Food Industry 2023 document shows government rowbacks, including the u-turn on HFSS promotions and failure to bring in mandatory reporting on health and carbon emissions, despite plans set out in the government’s response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, have created a climate that discourages companies from moving the agenda forward.

However, Lewis urged retail CEOs to not wait for policy and continue working towards their goals: “The only thing that closes the gap in terms of performance is action,” he said.

WWF CEO Tanya Steele said: “The clock is ticking for people and planet but, within the food retail sector, the appetite is growing for action to shift our food system on to a sustainable footing.

“Today we welcome Aldi to WWF’s Retailers’ Commitment for Nature, where we’re working with UK food retailers to deliver shared solutions to tackle the devastating impacts of our food system on our environment – we urge all UK retailers to step up to this commitment and work with businesses across their supply chains to accelerate action.”