What impact does the Which? annual rankings of the greenest supermarkets have on consumer behaviour?

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By Dr Jennifer TyreeHageman
Lecturer in Responsible Business, University of Birmingham

In February, the consumer association Which? released its annual rankings of the greenest supermarkets. The ranking system uses three metrics to measure the environmental sustainability of supermarkets: greenhouse gas emissions, plastic usage and food waste generated by the supermarkets. It was good news for the high-end grocer Waitrose, and budget friendly Lidl as they ranked joint first.

However, although measuring environmental impact is integral to mitigating climate disaster, these metrics make use of limited criteria, leading to rankings which may not be truly representative of the brand’s sustainability efforts.

Some of the areas that tend to be neglected include rates of organic production, biodegradable cleaning products, the environmental footprint of products, and the brand’s commitment to future sustainability. A lack of comparable data on these aspects reflects significant issues with sustainability reporting in general. Without having reliable, comparable information about the supermarkets’ sustainability performance, it is difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about their consumption choices. Consumers who are concerned with other aspects of sustainability may not feel that these rankings provide sufficient information about the companies’ environmental performance and may be less inclined to take them into account when choosing a supermarket.

Despite this missing information, the three main metrics used by the Which? rankings can tell consumers a lot about the priorities of a company and align with recent consumers trends that focus on reducing plastic waste and low-carbon lifestyles. Consumers have been concerned with plastic waste for several years, but with growing attention around achieving a Net Zero UK, consumers are increasingly expecting brands to act on climate change issues more broadly.

There is a strong case for sustainability: becoming a greener supermarket makes good business sense. We are seeing rising interest in sustainable consumption and increased consumer scrutiny in the environmental practices of companies. Consumers are more sensitive to unsustainable practices and believe that companies should take greater responsibility for sustainability – consumers in the UK are increasingly choosing brands based on their environmental impact.  A 2021 survey by Deloitte found that 28% of UK consumers stopped purchasing certain brands or products based on sustainability and ethical related concerns.

It isn’t clear how strongly these green rankings will affect an overall shift toward more sustainable consumption. Although consumers may want to engage in sustainable consumption and support environmentally sustainable brands, the wider issue is more complex: embedded shopping habits and trust in brands are huge factors in consumer behaviour, for example.

Despite this, it seems likely that these rankings will play a role in determining consumer choice, particularly among those who prioritize environmental sustainability. The rankings may help reassure consumers that a supermarket’s green marketing messages are supported by actual data and evidence of sustainable business practices.

Supermarkets who didn’t perform as well in the rankings, such as Aldi and Iceland, shouldn’t be discouraged. Providing transparent information about sustainability practices can bolster consumers’ trust in a brand, even when companies seemingly underperform. Consumers want to see a commitment to future sustainability and recognise that this is an evolving, long-term process. It is vital that part of this transparency includes visible and actionable commitments to change, or companies run the risk of being seen as greenwashing and undoing all their hard work.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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