‘No supermarket allows consumers to have sustainable food’: Climate Action Network critiques the environmental record of French retailers

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Supermarkets promote 'industrial' meat and dairy at the expense of sustainable alternatives, Climate Action Network research suggests / Pic: GettyImages-nastya_ph
Supermarkets promote 'industrial' meat and dairy at the expense of sustainable alternatives, Climate Action Network research suggests / Pic: GettyImages-nastya_ph

Related tags sustainable Meat Dairy plant-based

A study of the environmental impact of foods available in French supermarkets has drawn a startling conclusion: ‘No supermarket allows consumers to have sustainable food’.

The Climate Action Network has published a study examining the role that French supermarkets are playing to support consumers transition toward more sustainable patterns of food consumption. The climate activists evaluated the performance of eight main retail banners in France: Auchan, Carrefour, Casino, Intermarché, E. Leclerc, Lidl, Monoprix and Super U. According to the report, rather than promoting sustainable diets, supermarkets actually represent ‘obstacles’ to sustainable food.

The researchers noted that food and beverage production currently produces 25% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, two-thirds of which comes from animal products such as meat and dairy. Our diets therefore have a direct relationship to environmental destruction and climate change, Climate Action Network maintained. This issue is interlinked to population health, with our dietary choices also contributing to the progression of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and certain types of cancer. “It needs to change,” Climate Action Network insisted.

And given the dominant market position of the supermarket channel, Climate Action Network believes that retailers need to leave the way. In France, 70% of food is purchased through supermarkets. “Our ability to have a sustainable diet therefore depends heavily on the practices of the [retail] brands.”

But retailers are failing to provide consumers with access to sustainable foods, the study - carried out by the Réseau Action Climat – suggests.

Retailers promote ‘industrial’ meat and dairy at the expense of sustainable alternatives

The researchers assessed the performance of each chain based on a number of sustainability criteria. Each business was awarded a mark out of 20 – but nobody secured a score higher than ten. “Therefore, no supermarket allows consumers to have sustainable food,” the environmental campaigners insisted.

Climate Action Network took particular issue with a number of practices they characterised as commonplace in France. Multiplies advertisements and promotions encouraged the purchase of meat and dairy products, contrary to public health recommendations, they noted. Shelf space within the meat and dairy fixtures is skewed towards ‘industrial’ production ‘to the detriment of more sustainable products’, they argued noting that less than 10% of meat on shelves is organic.

Retailers are also failing to ‘facilitate the transition to a more plant-based diet’, with 92% of the prepared meals on sale at France’s largest supermarkets containing meat or fish.

‘The culpable inaction of public authorities’

Climate Action Network said that this situation can be ‘explained by the culpable inaction of the public authorities’ and suggests that French public institutions need to implement policy that is supportive of a transition to sustainable food consumption.

“This study also demonstrates the important responsibility of public authorities. The current regulatory framework is flawed as it allows supermarkets to promote products that are harmful to health and the planet, to make excessive mark-ups on sustainable products and not to provide fair remuneration to farmers,” Climate Action Network insisted.

“More broadly, the action of the public authorities in terms of food is insufficient and sometimes contrary to the challenges of the transition,” they said citing a ‘lack’ of public support for sustainable farming, ‘timidity’ of campaigns to promote a more plant-based diet and ‘lack of information’ on the environmental impacts of food products available to consumers.

‘The urgency of ambitious public policies’

Climate Action Network insists that there is widespread support for such initiatives in France. According to data supplied by the organisation, 80% of French shoppers want to consume more responsibly, and 76% are ready to eat less meat.

The environmental advocacy group is calling on French policy makers to make a number of adjustments they believe will empower consumers to support sustainable food system transformation. These include mandating the labelling of food products to include environmental impact indicators and farming methods; prohibiting advertising and marketing for animal products and meat products (nuggets, burgers, pizzas, etc.) ‘except for organic and Label Rouge products.

The organisation wants the government to pull fiscal levers to increase accessibility and affordability of products from ‘sustainable agricultural models’ including organic farming. This approach could include capping the profit margin large retailers can apply to organic products in order to drive down price and promote price parity with conventional production for consumers.

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