How green is your supermarket?

All the major UK supermarkets from Tesco through to Marks & Spencer pride themselves on giving the impression that they are “green” or “eco-friendly”. They highlight using recycled carrier bags, recycled plastic packaging or sustainable fishing and farming to help support their case.

And they each have some sort of elaborate “green plan for the future”. From Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, which it hopes will see it become the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2015, to Sainsbury’s 20 by 20 Sustainability Plan, which sets out 20 sustainability targets it hopes to achieve by 2020, they all talk a good game.

But do any of these green initiatives benefit the supermarket customer, the likes of you and me?

How going green saves you money

Analysts from market research company Mintel believe that these initiatives often cut costs.The example Mintel gives is that if your supermarket charges for plastic carrier bags, you are more likely to bring your own or use a reusable bag, saving you money in the long-run.

Many supermarkets have started charging for plastic bags. Discount chain Lidl charges its customers anything between 3p, 5p, 9p or 89p for a plastic carrier bag. Marks & Spencer (M&S) charges 5p per plastic carrier bag, with the profits going towards environmental charity Groundwork to fund greener living projects across the UK.

Waitrose has introduced different designs to its reusable bag range (jute, cotton and 'Bags for Life') in order to encourage customers to buy them and use them as an alternative to plastic carrier bags. It also gives out free 'Bags for Life' to customers in newly-opened branches instead of plastic carrier bags during the first two weeks of trade.

Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco offer points on their loyalty cards if customers reuse plastic carrier bags. So if you have a Sainsbury’s Nectar card you can accrue Nectar points over time and buy more during your weekly or daily shop.

Tesco rewards loyal customers with green Clubcard points. According to the corporate website, they give away over one billion green Clubcard points, worth over £10 million every year, to those who also recycle printer cartridges, aluminium cans, mobile phones or choose bagless home delivery.

Not all retailers have followed the green example of the supermarkets though, which is why four environmental organisations have joined forces to call for all retailers to charge for plastic bags.

Eco-friendly food

Waitrose also encourages its customers to buy British through its local and regional sourcing initiative. This initiative currently includes over 2,500 products from more than 600 producers. Buying local produce from the UK is often a cheaper way to shop, and better for the environment as you are not clocking up “food air miles.”

A lot of supermarkets also stock Fairtrade products. According to a spokesman from M&S, all tea and coffee stocked in the stores is Fairtrade, all eggs are free range and all the fish sold come from the most sustainable sources (either MSC certified or, where MSC certification is not available, M&S works with the WWF).

Waitrose also makes sure that the lives and conditions of farm workers who grow and pick South African Waitrose citrus fruit, mangoes, grapes, stone fruit and avocados are improved with its Foundation South Africa, set up in 2005. To-date the Foundation has raised £3.95m and has funded more than 239 projects (chosen by workers), benefiting over 25,000 workers and their families.

What else you can do to be green

There are additional measures you can take as a supermarket shopper to be green:

  1. Recycle unwanted clothing, batteries, plastic bottles, glass.
  2. Buy ethical foods from Fairtrade and sustainably-sourced foods.
  3. Avoid “multi-buy” offers. You may think buying three punnets of strawberries with a short-sell-by-date is saving money when you only wanted to buy one, but it is not. It will only have a knock-on effect for landfill.
  4. Donate your green Clubcard points and Clubcard vouchers to save the rainforests.
  5. Cut down on your “food air miles”. Do you really need to buy those tropical king prawns from South East Asia for your salad? Or put that Madagascan Vanilla pod in your sponge cake? Tesco, for example, has introduced “carbon labelling” on over 500 products in attempt to help customers reduce their carbon footprint by 50% by 2020.

Overall, UK supermarkets are helping their customers to be more of a “green shopper”, save money and help the environment. But there is a long way to go. Particularly, when economic times are tough, “being green” seems to fall by the way side. Sadly, according to research from Mintel, this year an estimated 17.8 million people are shunning being green as they are more worried about basic living conditions and making ends meet.

More on supermarkets:

Campaign calls for plastic bag charge in England

The best way to pay less at the supermarket

The four ways supermarkets con shoppers