How green are New Zealand's supermarkets?

What supermarkets are doing to green up their act.

Tomatoes packaged in plastic.

Our supermarket trade is dominated by two players, so we don’t have much choice when it comes to the weekly shop. However, the big impact that food has on the environment means supermarkets have a key role to play in sustainability.

We checked out how Woolworths New Zealand (owner of Countdown supermarket and franchisor of the SuperValue and FreshChoice stores) and Foodstuffs (the name behind New World, Pak’nSave and Four Square co-operatives) measure up against key environmental goals. We asked them what they’re doing to reduce food and packaging waste, decrease carbon emissions, and source from sustainable suppliers.

What to know

What to know

What to know

  • Despite their stated environmental commitments, both of New Zealand's two major supermarket companies are failing to report on key issues such as their waste to landfill. Foodstuffs also failed to provide figures on its carbon emissions.
  • While they’re taking steps to manage some impacts, we think they need to do a much better job disclosing how they’re performing on the environment front and put hard numbers behind their commitments.

Green goals

In 2015, the United Nations signed up to 17 sustainable development goals. There are four key environmental goals. These focus on:

  • responsible consumption and production (doing more with less)
  • reducing greenhouse gas emissions to halt the effects of climate change
  • keeping waterways clean and protecting sea life, and
  • the sustainable management of land.

Some companies, including Woolworths, state they align their sustainability commitments with the UN goals. Both Woolworths and Foodstuffs produce annual sustainability reports. However, the reports didn’t contain the depth of information we’d expect to see from these companies.

Food waste

Neither company could tell us how much food waste they generate each year and how much ends up going to landfill.

They both donate food that can’t be sold (but is still safe to eat) to food rescue programmes. In the year to 20 April 2019, Foodstuffs estimated it donated the equivalent of 10.8 million meals from its New World and Pak’nSave stores.

In the past financial year, Countdown said it donated $5.2 million of food to charity programmes and $1.77 million to farmers for animal feed and composting.

By 2020, Countdown aims to have zero food waste going to landfill. Foodstuffs’ zero food waste target is 2022.

Packaging waste

We were disappointed neither company would tell us how much packaging waste they produce each year.

Pile of plastic food packaging.
Countdown and Foodstuffs have committed to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

Both have committed to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their own brand and in-store packaging by 2025. The two chains also accept BYO containers for food sold in their deli, meat and seafood counters. Foodstuffs accepts them in its bakery department too. However, not all South Island Foodstuffs supermarkets have taken up this initiative.

Countdown said since 2018 it’s removed 117 tonnes of plastic from the produce section and stopped selling single-use plastic straws. It is also using recycled plastic where possible (including for meat trays), trialling different packaging options in the bakery, and in Auckland is part of the Soft Plastics Recycling Scheme.

In Foodstuffs supermarkets, in-store meat trays, private label plastic clam-shell packaging and some of its in-store bakery packaging is made from clear RPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate), which is made from 50% recycled content. Foodstuffs doesn’t sell plastic cotton buds and it’s phasing out plastic straws and oxo-degradable plastics (plastic packaging that breaks down into smaller “microplastics” but they don’t degrade any faster than regular plastic).

Climate change

Since 2016, Countdown has lowered its carbon emissions by 21% from 178,371 to 140,456 tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalents. There’s been a 9.5% reduction in the past year. Countdown’s aiming to lower carbon emissions by 60% by 2030 compared with 2015 levels.

Refrigerants are the biggest contributor to the company’s emissions, making up 35.6%. It said it was reducing the use of refrigerants and moving to ones with a lower global warming impact.

Energy use makes up 28.6% of emissions. Since 2006, there’s been a 21% decrease in electricity used per store square metre. This is due to energy-efficient fridge systems and natural refrigerants, freezers that reduce cold air loss, LED lighting and new air-conditioning systems.

Fuel contributes 25.7% to emissions. The company has converted five refrigerated delivery trucks to electric, which will eliminate approximately 135,000kg of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Countdown has installed electric vehicle charging stations at some Hamilton stores.

Foodstuffs wouldn’t tell us what its total emissions were. It said since 2014 new stores and major refurbishments have used natural refrigeration systems, which reduce carbon emissions by 99%. LED lighting and lids on freezer cabinets reduce the energy used by up to 30% in some stores. Its new supermarkets also incorporate solar power systems.

Foodstuffs has invested more in electric vehicles. It has 28 electric vans, which saves about 37.5 tonnes of carbon each year. It’s also trialling three battery-powered delivery trucks, including one refrigerated model. Foodstuffs has installed 70 fast electric vehicle chargers nationwide.

Sustainable suppliers

We asked both supermarkets what proportion of the products they sold have independent certification. Neither company provided this information. We looked at what they’re doing on the palm oil front.

Palm oil

Orangutan mother and baby in tree.
Countdown and Foodstuffs both refused to tell us what proportion of products they sold had independent certification.

Countdown and Foodstuffs belong to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-led initiative for certifying sustainable palm oil. However, the RSPO has been criticised because it doesn’t guarantee the oil that ends up in products is sustainably sourced.

Countdown said it tries not to use palm oil in its own-brand products. If it does, the oil is RSPO-certified and its preference is to use segregated palm oil (can be traced to mills) over mass-balance oil (which can be mixed with non-certified stuff). It has a few products that use “book and claim” oil, which isn’t traced. Palm oil is specified in the ingredients list on its own-brand and in-store packaged products.

Foodstuffs told us it labels palm oil on its Pams and Value products. However, this isn’t necessarily the case for its in-store bakeries. The palm oil it uses is mass balance certified. The company said suppliers of its store brand products must use a minimum amount of mass balance oil and provide evidence supporting this.

Member comments

Get access to comment

Shireen S.
22 Apr 2021
Perhaps time to update this report?

Although we’ve had the onset of Covid-19, it would be great to see this report from Nov 2019 updated this year (2021). Thanks for all your hard work.

A duopoly means neither Foodstuffs nor Woolworths need to really do any better! That’s such a shame.

Susan D.
22 Apr 2021
Out of date!

Would be good to have current information on how our supermarkets are doing, this is from 2019. According to this article Countdown aims to have zero food waste going to landfill by 2020 and as its now 2021 it would be good to know if they’ve succeeded?

Helen D.
11 Nov 2019
Banning straws and cotton buds is not going to cut it!

Every day more and more products appear on supermarket shelves in unnecessary plastic packaging, especially in the produce section. Items that used to be packaged in cardboard eg lightbulbs, are now in plastic. Supermarkets truck goods around on pallets wrapped in yards and yards of plastic shrinkwrap. They import fish from Vietnam and sell NZ salmon sent overseas for packaging and then sent back. I could go on. There's nothing green or sustainable about any of this.

john c.
10 Nov 2019
Produce sourcing

A big problem is the way supermarkets centralise their purchasing of produce. For example, we live near Kakanui and see produce grown here trucked up to Christchurch to be distributed around the South Island, including back to Oamaru. Dopey. In an Oamaru supermarket I can buy tomatoes "proudly grown" in Nelson. I can also buy them from the glasshouse around the corner.

Christine B.
09 Nov 2019
Palm oil

What does mass balanced mean . I really dislike how new world package bakery items unnecessarily especially putting items on hard trays that are fine in just a bag -croissants for example.

Consumer staff
11 Nov 2019
Re: Palm oil

Hi Christine,

Mass balance means that certified sustainable palm oil has been mixed with non-certified palm oil at some point in the supply chain. The result is that a part of the end product is untraceable and its sustainability can’t be guaranteed.

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ staff

Judith C.
09 Nov 2019

Please ask them all to remove those annoying stickers from all fruit and vegetables, not only are they unnecessary plastic waste, they are a massive choke hazard!