How green is your supermarket?

2010-11-11 00:00

“MUST try harder. Room for improvement”: that’s what the report card on Msunduzi supermarkets has to say when it comes to encouraging consumers to shop in ways that support environmental and socio-economic sustainability.

These were some of the findings of a pilot study titled “The Role of Supermarkets in Local Environmental and Socio-Economic Sustainability 2010” released earlier this month. The study, funded by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, was commissioned by the National Consumer Forum (NCF) and carried out by the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi). It was led by Professor J. Maryann Green from the faculty of science and agriculture on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

A total of 18 supermarkets from the Msunduzi Municipality in the province of KZN participated in the project. They included four major supermarket chains (Pick ‘n Pay, Shoprite-Checkers, Spar and Woolworths) and one independent chain (Save Cash & Carry).

Midi director Robert Fincham said that Pietermaritzburg was chosen for the study because of Midi’s focus on a 20-year vision of sustainable development for KZN’s capital city.

“Supermarkets are playing an increasingly important role in consumer behaviour,” said Fincham, “and Pietermaritzburg, despite having a population of only 700 000, is recognised as one of the nine major cities in the country and faces the same challenges as all other major centres such as rapid urbanisation, poverty, food insecurity and water crises.

“Almost without exception, major centres in the world are re-examining their environmental and socio-economic footprints.”

Paul Crankshaw, deputy chairperson of the NCF said there was a need to investigate the impact of supermarkets on surrounding communities and find out the nature of that impact. “We are looking for sustainable consumption.”

It was also necessary to investigate the way food is procured and distributed by supermarkets, Crankshaw said. “Is this the only way or the best way of distributing food products in a country where food security is a growing issue?”

The study notes that South Africa, like many developing countries around the world, is faced with the task of promoting economic development to meet the needs of its population while at the “same time ensuring that the environmental systems and services on which the people rely are not destroyed or exhausted.”

Supermarkets are where the majority of people purchase food — consequently they play a pivotal role in changing consumer attitudes towards such critical issues as food choice and the impact that buying patterns have on the environment.

This pilot study investigated how South Africa’s supermarkets address issues of sustainable development, sustainable consumption and the interests of consumers. This included current policies relating to the environment and society and how, or if, these are implemented at store level; supermarkets’ action with regards to their stores’ carbon footprint, waste-management procedures, and water consumption; and also the social impacts resulting from the stores’ initiatives in corporate social responsibility, local economic development, consumer education and fair trade.

While such studies have been undertaken in Britain by the National Consumer Council, this study is the first in South Africa. That’s not to say the supermarkets themselves are not doing anything. According to the study the leading South African supermarket chains (Pick ‘n Pay, Woolworths, Shoprite-Checkers and Spar) have “all undertaken individual initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint, together with the release of annual sustainability reports.

“Supermarkets are recognising that there is much more they can do to reduce their impact on the environment and to help their customers become greener,” the study says. “Initiatives such as the recycling facilities, waste-management procedures, the range of environmentally friendly products as well as the corporate social-investment projects show that supermarkets have taken steps towards supporting environmental sustainability.”

The study identified several areas in which supermarkets could enhance the positive impacts they have in society. These were:

• reducing the carbon footprint of the stores.

• promoting sustainable farming and fishing practices.

• championing local procurement options; and

• enhancing consumer education.

However, most supermarkets fell short of their potential to boost local businesses through targeting local suppliers — especially in those companies where procurement was centralised at head office. Smaller towns like Pietermaritzburg were often supplied with goods from outside the area, or even outside the province, when smaller suppliers could have been sourced locally.

After the completion of this study, the NCF will look for opportunities to do further research on a larger scale.


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