Tesco’s partnership with WWF goes back to 2018 but what have they achieved in four years?

Some partnerships start out slowly and tentatively, gradually building momentum over time. Others open with a bang and an immediacy that burns bright, only to fizzle out just as fast as it began. And once in a while you get a third kind: a new dawn that feels as thrilling years later as it did on that fateful first day.

Tesco and WWF’s partnership is billed as the latter. When the UK’s biggest supermarket joined forces with the world’s largest conservation charity in 2018, both parties described the five-year tie-up as “ground-breaking” – a moniker they still use to this day.

While Tesco is not WWF’s only food industry partner, its level of integration with the charity is unprecedented. The organisations co-operate in their day-to-day operations, all the way up to regular interactions at CEO level, and Tesco is now one of WWF UK’s largest corporate donors, according to the charity’s latest accounts. “I have honestly not seen [a partnership] like this,” says Mike Barrett, WWF’s executive director for science & conservation.

The partnership’s centrepiece is the “sustainable basket metric” which calculates the environmental impact of commonly bought grocery items in the UK. Since then, Tesco has used this methodology to track the impact of its baskets. WWF branded the metric “one of the most ambitious things we’ve achieved this year”. Giles Bolton, Tesco’s responsible sourcing director, called it “radical and transformative”.

Yet critics are wary. Greenpeace previously dismissed similar efforts as “talking shops” that fail to deliver substantive action. It warned unless supermarkets “face up” to slashing sales of factory-farmed meat and dairy “very little will change on the forest floor”.


Tesco’s former CEO Dave Lewis and WWF’s Tanya Steele

So with just over a year to go until its end, has the Tesco-WWF partnership really been ground-breaking? Or is it more talk than action?

Years of work had preceded the “ground-breaking, long-term partnership” announced by Dave Lewis and Tanya Steele, Tesco and WWF UK CEOs, in 2018. Discussions of varying degrees of intensity had taken place over “a long, evolutionary process” towards the final agreed objectives, says Barrett.

“It’s never just been about Tesco. It’s been about changing the entire sector”

Those objectives were markedly more ambitious than some expected. The partners agreed not only to tackle a single issue like palm oil or plastics, or even just to focus on Tesco’s footprint, but to drive systemic change across the entire food industry. “That’s been the game-changer,” says Barrett. “It’s never just been about Tesco. It’s been about changing the entire sector.”

Where WWF brings technical expertise and a global network of environmental experts, Tesco shapes and applies this through the lens of real-life insight into how supply chains currently work. The dynamic has helped create more than a dozen research papers, covering areas from food waste to carbon credits. That means “what we’re coming up with is not just research-strong, but practical and implementable for us to push into our conversations and standards with suppliers”, says Tesco’s Bolton. WWF’s expertise on sustainable agriculture is a “particularly rich area of the partnership”, he adds – “an area throughout the food system in which we’re all trying to learn interventions that really make a difference and accelerate progress”.

Tesco and WWF’s partnership over the years

November 2018

Tesco and WWF announce their “ground-breaking, long-term partnership” aimed at making food more sustainable.

December 2019

tesco shopping basket

The sustainable basket metric is launched to measure and track the environmental impact of the average shopping basket. Tesco pledges to halve its impact by 2030.

December 2019

Tesco contributes £10m over five years to help support farmers to produce soy only on existing agricultural land in the Cerrado region of Brazil.

May 2020

WWF UK appoints former Tesco CEO Dave Lewis as chair of its board of trustees.

September 2020

Tesco commits to a 300% increase in sales of meat alternatives by 2025 alongside a wider set of sustainability measures developed with WWF.

July 21_tesco-cumcumber_0001

July 2021

A Tesco-WWF report finds one billion tonnes more food than previously thought is being wasted globally. It found 40% of all food goes uneaten, an increase on the previous estimate of 33%.

July 2021

A Tesco-WWF report finds using insects to feed livestock and fish could slash the UK’s future soy imports by 20% by 2050.

August 2021

Tesco and WWF launch a new trial to give British farmers subsidies to grow more sustainable grass-based feed for their livestock.

October 2021

Tesco says all its fresh produce suppliers must adopt the Leaf Marque farming standards by 2025 to help it halve the impact of its food.

November 2021


During COP26, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op and M&S all sign up to the sustainable basket metric and pledge to halve the environmental impact of their products by 2030.

December 2021

A Tesco-WWF report finds 50 separate initiatives to tackle soil health across the industry were fundamentally lacking in “resource, ambition or strategy” that prevented their realisation.

January 2022

A Tesco-WWF report finds the potential market value of UK land-based carbon credits alone could equate to as much as £1.7bn annually, though warned farmers to focus on their own farm emissions reduction before considering trading carbon to offset pollution in other sectors.

May 2023

The partnership is due to end.

WWF’s expertise has been boosted by Tesco’s cash injections. They totalled around £1.5m in 2019 and 2020, according to the charity’s latest accounts. This has enabled WWF to hire seven technical experts across each of the seven key areas of the partnership: climate, deforestation and conversion of habitat, agricultural production, marine, sustainable diets, food waste and packaging.

The new employees are part of a team led by WWF’s head of food transformation Sarah Wakefield, who works closely with the Tesco environment team led by Anna Turrell on a day-to-day basis. It’s a joint effort that tackles questions such as: what gaps remain in Tesco’s environmental focus? What are the options to solve those gaps? Does it need more technical insight, or research? How is the existing work going? Is it on track?

“It’s the full gamut of agreed priorities,” says Bolton. Tesco has also given WWF staff access to many of its supplier meetings, helping it to build a picture both of the existing limitations Tesco faces and the opportunities it may currently under-exploit.

WWF’s new staff are just one beneficiary of the partnership’s funding. The money also helps support evidence-based research into new solutions around key areas. “Investing money in testing alternative animal feed, for example, has enabled us to do a lot of testing, a lot of thinking, a lot of analysis,” says Barrett.

Sustainable baskets

For both Tesco and WWF, the jewel in the crown of almost four years of partnership is the sustainable basket metric which acts as a barometer to track the overall environment impact of the supermarket. Tesco’s pledge is to halve its overall impact by 2030.

The metric focuses on seven of the “most urgent and devastating environmental issues” from climate change to food waste and agriculture to diets, giving a weighted target to each. Unlike many other measures and schemes, it provides a holistic approach to minimising the environmental cost of a retailer’s range.

“A lot of people are thinking, well, I’ve got my marine sustainability challenge over here. And then you’re talking to me about deforestation. And then I’ve got refrigeration and my own operations and distribution emissions. And then I’ve got soils and biodiversity and how do I prioritise? How do I bring it all together?” says Tesco’s Bolton.

“The basket metric is incredibly useful in saying: here is an overview of the main environmental issues broken down into seven areas. That really helps you to set targets against each and start to see where you can accelerate. But also, which you can prioritise.”

Its development was made possible by Tesco’s investment, which has taken care of the “heavy lifting and analysis” behind it, says WWF’s Barrett. The plan is to roll it out as a sector-wide commitment – and a further step towards that target came amid COP26 in November, when Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op and M&S all signed up to the measure. Non-UK retailers are also showing interest, says Barrett.

“Once a company is funding you, it’s difficult to step out and criticise that company”

In a joint statement in November, the supermarket bosses said: “As CEOs of leading UK food retailers, we recognise that a future without nature is a future without food. By 2030 we need to halt the loss of nature.”

Such targets are not new, of course, and in fact are frequently missed. But WWF’s technical insights and ability to tap into regional expertise around the world has given the basket metric a level of detail that potentially sets it apart from other agreements.

“The basket metric is quite directional in terms of ‘do this, do this, do this’ as opposed to those kinds of broad policy ambitions,” says Will Schreiber, a partner at 3Keel sustainability advisors, who work with supermarkets in the Retail Soy Group and Palm Oil Transparency Coalition. “The level of ambition, the degree of work, all of that was amplified and focused because of the partnership.”

ploughed field unsplash

Tesco and WWF launched the sustainable basket metric to much fanfare in 2019

Tesco’s soy policy, for example, was previously based on credits, he says, whereas today it is aiming for 100% “verified zero deforestation” soy that comes via transparent and segregated supply chains. While it still has a long way to go, with soy in the UK regularly traced to deforested areas, “where it’s not possible, Tesco is asking ‘what’s the roadmap for getting there? What does that supply chain look like?’” says Schreiber.

Whether that level of detail will be matched by others remains to be seen. Tesco revealed last year it was 11% of the way towards its 2030 target of halving its environmental impact from its 2018 baseline basket – a measure that Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Co-op and M&S, who only signed up in November, have not yet published.

The criticism

Anna Jones at Greenpeace has doubts about their level of commitment. “I know that WWF have tried very, very hard to get these other supermarkets to sign up,” she says. “But I worry about deadlines that are in five or 10 years’ time. We’ve already seen supermarkets missing their 2020 deadlines on deforestation – we need action this year. So the proof will be whether we see concrete action happening in the coming months.”

Robin Willoughby, the former UK director of Mighty Earth who spent seven years working at Oxfam close to such corporate partnerships, also has concerns about who will monitor the roadmaps. Particularly, who will call out the companies when targets are missed.

“Is it WWF who will call out Tesco and the other supermarkets if they don’t achieve it? Because there’s a possible moral hazard for them to do that if they’re getting significant funding from these companies.

“Once a company is funding you and providing roles, it’s difficult to criticise that company in public if you think they’re stepping out of line or not walking the talk,” explains Willoughby. “NGOs can become somewhat trapped inside these corporate partnerships.”

There is always that risk of “biting the hand that feeds you”, he argues. “From my perspective it would be better if it was a broad NGO coalition which is overseeing it with an element of independence.”

Despite the criticism, Tesco and WWF’s work is undoubtedly ambitious and largely unrivalled in its scope and aspiration – so teething problems are to be expected and in many ways, inevitable.

The sustainable basket metric shows particular promise as an objective measure. If adopted across the industry, it could result in real wholesale change.

But by Tesco and WWF’s own admission, the real measure of success will be systemic industry-wide change. Having brought other supermarkets on board in principle, the work will now really begin to make changes in practice.

Measuring sustainable supermarket baskets

Tesco and WWF launched the sustainable basket metric to much fanfare in 2019. It was, they said, a “transformational” way of measuring the environmental impact of food on shelves.

The metric uses an average shopping basket of 20 commonly bought food products to track the overall environmental impact of the supermarket.

The items act as the ‘barometer’ to track the impact of each retailer across seven areas. Climate change, deforestation, sustainable diets, sustainable agriculture, marine sustainability, food waste and packaging waste. There are 14 outcomes which sit beneath these and 20 measurements.

“The basket metric is useful in saying: here is an overview of the main environmental issues. That helps you to set targets”

“The science behind it is fascinating, because you of course can’t really say marine sustainability is worth X, and on the same gradient deforestation is worth Y,” says Giles Bolton, Tesco’s responsible sourcing director. “The indicators were inevitably a compromise of what would be great science and what is reasonably measurable. Because otherwise, you kill yourself trying to clean data and so on, and you don’t have a chance to actually work on the intervention.”

Tesco and WWF therefore opted to assemble a list of priority issues, checking and confirming their relative weighting with independent scientists who agreed it was a reasonable way to assess, Bolton adds.

Tesco is now aiming to halve its impact by 2030 from an established 2018 baseline, confirming last year it was 11% towards its goal.

For Mike Barrett, WWF’s executive director for science and conservation, the metric is a crucial way of holding supermarkets to account. “It means they can’t make vacuous commitments. It means any commitment made will be measured, and they will be held accountable for whether they deliver it.”

The items act as the ‘barometer’ to track the impact of each retailer across seven areas. Climate change, deforestation, sustainable diets, sustainable agriculture, marine sustainability, food waste and packaging waste. There are 14 outcomes which sit beneath these and 20 measurements.