Iceland prides itself on its work to eliminate plastic. So what led Which? to rank it last among supermarkets on sustainability?

In his book, The Green Grocer, Iceland MD Richard Walker sets out how businesses large and small can be more socially responsible and sustainable. Last week, Which? published its measure of how sustainable the 11 biggest supermarkets are – and Iceland came bottom.

Iceland has found itself in a similar position before. A year ago, it was ranked bottom in a report by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) on supermarket efforts to cut plastic. It’s an awkward position for a retailer that has prided itself on trying to eliminate plastic from own-label ranges by the end of 2023.

“It’s b******s!” Walker told  The Grocer, commenting on the Which? report. “If we had faith in the methodology, we could live with it. We wouldn’t purport to be top of the list but we know this is wrong.”

So how did Which? arrive at its conclusions?

Which? assessed sustainability in three areas: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, plastic, and food waste. Iceland did respectably on food waste, coming sixth out of 11, based on the amount of food redistributed for human consumption as a proportion of total food sales.

However, food waste accounted for only 25% of the score (as did plastic). In contrast, a whopping 50% was based on emissions. Which? argues “while plastic and food waste are perhaps the most tangible issues to shoppers, experts generally agree GHG emissions pose the greatest environmental threat”.

Christina Dixon, the EIA’s deputy campaign lead, argues food waste, plastic pollution and GHG emissions are “interconnected threats” and should be “addressed holistically”.

But the poor score isn’t just down to weighting. Which? also gave little credence to the setting of targets. Within plastic and emissions, Which? awarded points for various future targets, but typically only one point, based on having the target or not (see box). It meant Iceland’s plastic reduction and recyclability targets did little to lift its score.

Instead, more than 60% of the total attainable score in the research was based on three sub-criteria: GHG ‘intensity’, plastic ‘intensity’ and plastic ‘recyclability’.

GHG intensity

GHG intensity alone accounted for 20 points out of a maximum 48 attainable across the board – so two points in this area was devastating for Iceland.

Which? based the scores on the amount of CO2 emissions generated by each supermarket per £1m of revenue. It says the majority of supermarkets provided their own data, including Iceland, which gave its answer in kilograms of CO2 per £1m revenue. All quoted companies and large unquoted companies must include energy use and emissions information in their directors’ reports, and Which? also referred to these.

However, Walker says the result “grossly misrepresents Iceland because it is based on retail spend rather than sales volumes, penalising supermarkets that sell at low prices”.

Which? counters that Lidl and Aldi came first and second on emissions, and points out Iceland’s many freezers will “need a lot of energy to run”.

Iceland head of packaging Stuart Lendrum says Aldi and Lidl’s position is besides the point: “They can still come top, despite the disadvantage. But it’s still a disadvantage.”

Walker is also frustrated that Which? “fails to take account of our 100% usage of renewably generated electricity”.

That won’t wash with Which?. While commending Iceland, but also Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, Co-op and M&S for using 100% renewable energy in stores, Which? points to earlier research it conducted which concluded some energy suppliers sold 100% renewable tariffs without generating renewable energy or having contracts to buy it directly from generators. Instead they purchased ‘Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin’ certificates, a type of ‘greenwashing’ according to Which? – so scores were not given.

“If Which? are seriously saying renewable energy is greenwashing, they need to start with 10 Downing St,” Lendrum counters.

Plastic intensity

Iceland scored 0.5 out of five for plastic intensity, based on the amount of plastic it puts on the market in tonnes per million own-brand and branded products sold. Walker says it “bears no relation to our own audited and published data on plastic usage which is used to calculate the packaging taxes we pay”.

Which? used Kantar for the number of items sold by each of the retailers, while the supermarkets themselves – including Iceland – provided the amount of plastic put on the market.

Lendrum says Iceland offered to provide a figure substituting Kantar’s volume sales figure for its own, but Which? declined.

Plastic recyclability

This was calculated from the percentage of each supermarket’s own-brand plastic that is recyclable in kerbside collections, information Which? sought from supermarkets’ themselves. Iceland didn’t provide it, and scored zero out of five as a result.

Lendrum acknowledges Iceland has work to do in establishing recyclability data but says the focus has been on eliminating plastic.

Dixon says a low “level of data transparency from Iceland” also contributed to its poor score in the EIA’s ‘Checking out on Plastics’ report.

The missing info highlights a limitation for research using self-reporting by supermarkets. After all, a proportion of the own-brand plastic Iceland puts on the market will be recyclable, such as milk bottles made from high-density polyethylene. “I’m confident we stand in a good place versus every other retailer on recyclability,” says Lendrum.

Similarly, M&S redistributes food for human consumption, but because it didn’t provide Which? with the data, it got zero for food waste intensity.

Self-reporting led to complications for the Checking out on Plastics survey in 2019, after supermarkets provided inconsistent data sets for plastic water bottle sales. Aldi initially included other types of plastic bottles, and later amended its submission, but the inflated number was published in the Sunday Times. 

A Which? spokeswoman argues: “Scoring zero when supermarkets fail to provide us with the data we’ve requested will hopefully incentivise them to be more forthcoming with the data in years to come.”

Dixon adds: “Transparency is one of the pillars required to accurately measure” progress. Without transparency, we’re operating in the dark.”