What is the most sustainable supermarket? That’s impossible to say

October 17, 2021 by No Comments

Supermarkets are doing too little to stimulate the sale of sustainable food. Ekoplaza does this best, Albert Heijn is the most transparent. This is what the Questionmark Foundation states, after analyzing the range, advertising brochures and online information about achieved sustainability goals.

But Questionmark’s ‘Superlist’ mainly shows what is not known, for example about the approach to plastic packaging or about meat consumption. The lack of transparency of supermarkets makes it difficult to assess how sustainable they really are.

Supermarkets endorse the Climate Agreement and the Dutch Delta Plan that aims to restore biodiversity. Nevertheless, they show too few concrete goals and results, according to Questionmark, which examined five themes: vegetable versus meat, ‘nature-inclusive’ agriculture, packaging, deforestation and fish labels.

Meat remains dominant

For example, supermarkets report that they want to “make it easy for customers to eat less meat” (Jumbo) or that “a plant-based lifestyle should be affordable for everyone” (Lidl), but they don’t say which part of the range should be plant-based .

Meat remains dominant in brochures and sales, although the supply of meat substitutes is growing. Regionally and nature-inclusively produced food is not yet the standard in the supermarket.

Only Albert Heijn provides figures on the share of organic in private labels and in fresh products from Dutch soil. At that supermarket 5.9 percent is organic, more than the average 3 percent of the other supermarkets (from other research).

It is difficult to assess whether supermarkets are on track in reducing the amount of packaging material. In 2025, that should be 20 percent less than in 2017, supermarkets agreed among themselves. Only Albert Heijn provides figures that show that it is ahead of schedule. Questionmark doubts the reliability of Superunie’s figures (the umbrella organization of Vomar, Deen and Coop, among others).

The researchers are most positive about the sale of fish. The majority of supermarket fish now has the MSC or ASC quality mark for sustainably caught fish. With fish in cans or processed in other products, such as pizza, that share could still rise.

Supermarket organization CBL says in a short statement that it does not recognize itself in the claim that the promotion of sustainable food is not visible enough. “That does not do justice to the steps that have been taken in recent years. The industry is active in all areas studied.”

CBL previously criticized Questionmark, which mainly showed the half-empty glass “with a layer of vinegar”. Questionmark says it strives for “a world in which people live healthy, on a healthy planet, with respect for all people and animals” and wants to “contribute to change the food system”. Research into sustainable food is co-financed by Natuurmonumenten, Natuur & Milieu and Mighty Earth.

General Goals

As Questionmark reports, many goals are unquantified, and therefore not measurable. This gives supermarkets room to give substance to general goals such as ‘supporting the transition to a more plant-based diet’ (Albert Heijn).

Supermarkets are also sometimes dependent on international agreements and trade flows to achieve their goals, such as in the case of soy and palm oil. The majority of the soy in the supermarket is certified with a quality mark, including soy that ends up indirectly via animal feed in meat, dairy and eggs. Questionmark finds this insufficient, however: the certificates are no guarantee that the soy used does not come from recently deforested areas.

Many companies choose to keep data that they consider competitively sensitive to themselves. It is not surprising that Ekoplaza scores best: this is the only supermarket in the study that only sells organic products. Albert Heijn came in second because this supermarket chain shared the most information about sustainable business operations. It cannot be deduced from this study which less favorable information Albert Heijn does not share and how sustainable the other supermarkets actually are.

It is also questionable whether the figures of supermarkets are comparable, as researchers themselves say, for example, for ‘organic’. And concepts such as ‘local’ mean little without an unambiguous definition. Finally, the SuperList does not provide a complete overview of all supermarkets and does not deal with all issues. Parts like the CO2emissions, food waste or animal welfare remain out of the picture.

The conclusions of the study touch on the question of who is responsible for sustainable consumption. Supermarkets prefer to leave that choice to the consumer. But according to Questionmark and the affiliated nature organizations, corporate social responsibility means that supermarkets have to make an unsustainable choice more difficult. For example, by no longer stunting with cheap meat.