Supermarkets, sourcing & social responsibility


I went into Morrison’s the other day, not my usual supermarket but as I was passing I popped in. As I browsed at the fish counter I could not see any that were MSC Certified, so I asked the chap manning the counter. He looked at me blankly when I mentioned the acronym, so I explained about how the Marine Stewardship Council give certification to sustainable fisheries, he still did not seem to know what I was talking about and wandered off to ask another employee. Result, I walked out fishless.

This is typical supermarket behaviour, it’s not the first time people don’t seem to know (or frankly, care) about sustainability or ethical criteria. But it’s not really the employee’s fault, it’s just the supermarket culture – sell as much as we can, as cheaply as we can, as fast as we can (and make a big fat profit while we’re at it). If you start asking questions, nobody knows the answers.

Supermarkets often make uncovering how products were farmed/made/produced very difficult, they are not transparent. How would one find out which farm a chicken came from? All the information on the packet entails is which country it is from and if you’re lucky a county. Ask an employee they don’t know, ask them how you would find out? They don’t know that either. Supermarket supply chains are typically long, complex and convoluted, making it very difficult to obtain and collate the facts about where the products come from, how and where they are processed etc.

Supermarkets seem to be lacking any sense of social or environmental responsibility, their sourcing methods are dubious and their end product often unhealthy and unsustainable. This has been highlighted recently in Huge Fernley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish fight’ program on channel 4 which has drawn attention to Tesco and their persistence in selling unsustainable tuna. Food waste from supermarkets is just another example of a disrespectful culture, we all read how Tesco wasted over 35,000 tonnes of food in six months last year. Little regard is shown for the health of their consumers, the fair treatment of their suppliers or the environment.

The lack of legislation does not help. There is no legal restriction on the amount of fat, sugar or salt which can be added to food sold in supermarkets for example, no wonder we have an obesity epidemic in the UK. Even health conscious consumers can be fooled, for example, Old El Paso fajita spice mix contains a shocking 59% sugar. Sobering in the extreme.

Supermarkets have become so ingrained in the consumer’s psyche in the UK that we can easily forget that there are other options. I went to my local farmers market this week and every single question I asked was answered politely and enthusiastically. Buying directly from growers ensures they get a fair price for their products, and they are happy to speak to you, discuss the product with you and seem grateful for your interest allowing you to be much better informed about what you are eating.

I am committing to spending less time at the supermarket and more in local shops and farmers markets. No to mention the produce is more often than not cheaper, fresher and of better quality than that found in your local supermarket.
Go ahead, go direct, I promise you won’t regret it.

Further reading