How green are New Zealand's supermarkets?
What supermarkets are doing to green up their act.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
We were disappointed neither company would tell us how much packaging waste they produce each year.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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