League-table information about sustainability is useful if handled with care

The consumer organisation Which? has published a league table — Which? reveals the greenest supermarkets — ranking UK supermarkets according to how well they meet sustainability criteria around greenhouse gas emissions, plastic use and food waste. Like all such league tables, these supermarket sustainability rankings need to be handled with care. The headlines they generate may consist of sweeping generalisations. Real life is rarely as simple and clear-cut as league tables sometimes seem to suggest. However, as more and more of us take sustainability and other ethical questions into consideration when buying food and other products, the information provided in a table such as this can be useful in helping consumers make decisions about what they buy and where.

On the radio yesterday morning Tristram Hunt, the historian and biographer of Josiah Wedgwood, talked about the ‘total cognitive dissonance’ in Georgian times between the production of huge numbers of tea sets, coffee sets and sugar bowls that made the Potteries so successful and Wedgwood himself immensely rich, and the slave trade which produced the sugar that made it all possible.

We have moved on a long way since then in terms of thinking about the products we make and consume. Shoppers nowadays are increasingly enquiring about the provenance of products — in effect, looking to carry out ethical and sustainability audits of their own before handing over their money. Businesses understand the importance of drawing up codes of ethical practice and usually respond quickly to negative publicity around issues such as unsustainable sourcing or unacceptable working practices, however remote these might be down the supply chain.

Back to league tables. It is important to look beyond banner headlines of the ‘This supermarket is the best for X, that supermarket is the worst’ type. The reality is usually not as black and white as such headlines sometimes suggest. To take two examples from the Which? analysis:

According to their findings, the supermarket Lidl did well in terms of its low greenhouse gas emissions intensity and its aim to become carbon neutral this year. It also scored well on plastics, with a high proportion of its own-brand plastic being easily recyclable. However, Lidl did less well on food waste.

Second, Iceland appears to perform badly compared to other supermarkets in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. However, Iceland sells a huge amount of frozen food; it takes a lot of energy to keep products cold not just in the stores themselves but throughout the supply chain. And Iceland does buy 100% renewable electricity for its UK sites.

Sometimes, then, what league tables seem to show can be misleading. And sometimes a league-table culture can be positively harmful, not least because it can result in skewed priorities, create perverse incentives and lead to attempts to ‘game the system’. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly good to have a lot of information to hand before we make decisions (though too much information can make it hard to focus in on what really matters).

What is needed is a careful weighing up of information that is made available in a digestible form. If league tables such as this one, produced by reputable organisations such as Which?, help consumers make informed and balanced decisions, taking into account at least some of the pros and cons, then they are arguably serving a useful purpose.

We know that consumers increasingly want to shop sustainably and our in-depth analysis of three key areas shows that all the big supermarkets could be looking to make some improvements.

The good news is shoppers can make a big difference themselves by adopting more sustainable habits, such as buying loose fruit and vegetables, buying seasonal local produce, eating less meat and dairy and limiting their own food waste.

Harry Rose, editor of Which?, quoted in the Guardian

And it isn’t just today’s adults who are making important everyday decisions about what they buy and where. So are today’s children and young people — who are tomorrow’s adults, of course. Life-Based Learning emphasises the importance of children and young people learning much more than at present about climate change, sustainability and the environment and nature more generally, as part of a fully rounded, life-based curriculum. Such a curriculum will help them adopt the skills, values and practices that ensure they are able to live sustainable lives in harmony with the needs of the planet.

Life-Based Learning also emphasises the teaching of critical thinking, giving young people the intellectual tools to think clearly, rigorously and rationally so that they are able to synthesise and evaluate information. Critical thinking is exactly what is needed to make best use of consumer information such as that provided in supermarket league tables.

More About Sustainable Living

Image at the head of this article by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay.

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