Supermarket sweep

G Magazine

With a growing awareness of our need for sustainability, Australia’s major supermarkets are making significant efforts to reduce the environmental cost of stocking their shelves.


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There’s no denying it: Australians love a supermarket. We love their convenience, variety and low prices. In fact, Australians are among the most avid supermarket shoppers in the world. But that doesn’t make us mindless consumers. In a survey commissioned by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), around 85 per cent of shoppers said they are concerned about the impact of their supermarket shopping on the environment. Furthermore, 93 per cent believe retailers have an important responsibility to reduce that impact.

It would be fair to say Woolworths has led the supermarkets in environmental responsibility in Australia. As our biggest supermarket chain, Woolies has an established sustainability plan and has been active in the global community. Loath to be beaten, Coles is rolling out eco-initiatives as fast as possible, as is Metcash (IGA, Friendly Grocer and Foodland). Meanwhile, ALDI came on the scene in 2001 with ready-made eco-principles. This is all great news for the environment. The AFGC identifies four sustainability challenges for the food and grocery sector: water, waste, energy and social issues such as ethical sourcing. Here’s how our supermarkets fare.

Ethical sourcing

Coles pinpoints ethical sourcing as a top priority when it comes to sustainability. For Woolworths, this is an important part of a broader strategy. For now, ethical sourcing is focussed on a few core issues. Cynics would say these are the issues that matter most to consumers; idealists may see them as areas where retailers can use their muscle to make a difference.


Woolworths, Coles and Metcash are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and aim to use only sustainably sourced palm oil in their private-label products by 2015. Woolworths achieved a score of seven out of nine on the Palm Oil Buyers’ Scorecard 2011, compiled by global conservation organisation the World Wildlife Fund. Coles and Metcash scored 4.5, and ALDI sits on zero as it only recently joined the RSPO.


Coles has received a green rating in Greenpeace’s Truefood Guide for its policy of not using genetically modified (GM) ingredients in private-label products. Although Woolworths has been rated red, environmental manager Kane Hardingham confirms the company does not use GM ingredients for its own brands. Also, Woolies requires suppliers to notify the company of any GM ingredients they plan to use, and it works with them to switch to non-modified sources. Both supermarkets acknowledge they can’t guarantee GM-free meat, poultry or dairy as it may be present in animal feed. Metcash, which produces Black & Gold and the IGA ranges, also omits GM ingredients.


Cage eggs are no longer part of the Woolworths Select brand, but are still available as Home Brand. The grocery giant acknowledges that sales of cage eggs are still high and has rearranged the egg section to make it easier for people to choose free-range or barn-laid eggs. Coles, which has committed to phase out Coles-brand cage eggs by 2013, has reduced the cost of free-range eggs, which may prove to be the most effective measure.


Both big supermarket chains have exerted pressure on suppliers to get rid of sow-stalls by 2014, well ahead of the pork industry’s goal of 2017. By the end of the year, Woolworths says two-thirds of its supply will be sow-stall free. Free-range RSPCA-approved pork is currently available in 61 per cent of Woolworths stores, while Coles offers it in 225 stores nationally, with figures increasing as more becomes available from suppliers.


Fish have risen to the surface of consumer awareness and there’s been a flurry of activity to demonstrate a commitment to protecting our global seafood stocks. Despite big claims about its sustainable fish-sourcing policy, Woolworths has been strongly criticised by Greenpeace for continuing to use endangered yellowfin tuna in tins. Since then, Woolies has told Greenpeace it will stop using yellowfin and has joined the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, which should ensure more accountability. ALDI also uses yellowfin in cans, whereas Coles and Metcash use the more sustainable skipjack species. Greenpeace continues to be concerned that, apart from ALDI (which has acknowledged the issue but not taken any real action), none of the supermarket chains are doing anything to stop the use of fish aggregating devices, which indescriminately attract and catch all marine creatures – including dolphins, turtles and sharks – instead of just the targeted species.

Coles, Woolworths and ALDI have opened up their seafood ranges to scrutiny and have a good range of own-brand products certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Coles’ range has been assessed by the WWF. Already, Coles has learned that 90 per cent of its fresh fish range is considered sustainable and is working with suppliers to address the remaining 10 per cent. Woolworths’ goal is to have all fresh seafood certified by the MSC and is working with the Taronga Fish4Life project. Coles has introduced Sustainable Choice tickets on its fresh range and has pointers to sustainable seafood options in its canned and frozen food areas. In an upcoming trial, Woolies customers will be able to choose from Positive Choice, Good Alternative or Needs Improvement seafood at the deli counter.

What’s in store?

There are around 3,500 Coles private-label products, including Coles Finest and Coles Green Choice laundry range. Around 85 per cent of these products are locally sourced. Woolworths has some 2,500 products across its Home Brand, Select and Macro ranges, and sources half of these products locally. Most of the products on shelf in ALDI are exclusive-label and 80 per cent of these are sourced locally. Coles and Woolworths source 96 per cent and 93.7 per cent of all fresh fruit and veg locally, and both stock 100 percent Australian meat.

Energy & emissions

Across its 864 stores, Woolworths emitted 2,336,233 tonnes of CO2e, a 10.9 per cent reduction for 2011. Coles’ emissions were 2,523,808 over 744 stores, down 0.3 per cent on the previous year. Both chains have invested in night blinds for open fridges, automatic lighting and other refrigeration technology to reduce energy use. Woolworths has more than 30 low-carbon refrigeration plants in operation and plans to phase out harmful HFCs by 2015. Metcash has pledged the same.

Woolworths has 51 ‘green’ stores and continues to improve its energy-efficient model. The 26 new supermarkets built in 2010 have a 25.8 per cent reduction in emissions compared with older stores. While Coles has built a handful of ‘green stores’ in the past, the newest development at Greenacre, NSW, developed with the Green Building Council of Australia, has set the benchmark for future sustainably built Coles supermarkets. ALDI’s stand-alone stores, meanwhile, are built with treated roofs that deflect heat, low-impact concrete walls and cladding made from 70 per cent softwood, sourced from renewable forests.

When it comes to moving goods, Woolworths has improved logistics, employed new aerodynamic trailers, started using biofuels and reduced emissions from its company car fleet. Coles outsources the transport of its goods. ALDI has introduced trucks designed to shift frozen, fresh and non-perishable goods in one load, cutting the need for 400 journeys each year.

ALDI is the first supermarket to join Planet Ark’s Carbon Reduction Label program, and its olive oil is one of the first products in Australia to be certified by the Carbon Trust UK.

Waste & water

Woolworths is working towards zero food waste by 2015, and Coles community and sustainability manager Majella Allen says food waste will dramatically decline at Coles over the coming years. At the moment, most Woolies and a growing number of Coles stores divert surplus food to food-rescue programs such as Second Bite and Oz Harvest, providing meals for people in need. Waste is also converted into energy and compost, and even fat and bones are used to make lubricants or feed animals.

Coles last year recycled 141,022 tonnes of cardboard, paper, plastic, metal and organics and sent 100,107 tonnes of waste to landfill. Woolworths recycled more than 155,000 tonnes of plastic, cardboard and paper and sent about the same amount to landfill, although this figure includes New Zealand supermarkets and
Big W stores. Coles supermarkets used an estimated 1.69 gigalitres (GL) of water and Woolworths 1.83 GL. Woolworths has a target of reducing water usage by 200 million litres every year and exceeded this by more than 50 per cent in 2011. The focus is now on developing a water calculator to help suppliers assess their usage.

Plastic bags & packaging

Neither Coles nor Woolworths has plans to phase out single-use plastic bags. ALDI, on the other hand, has never offered free plastic bags since opening in 2001. In South Australia, where free, single-use bags have been banned for more than two years, research shows inconvenience to shoppers has been minimal. Brad Gray, campaigns manager at Planet Ark, says the only way for Australians to drop our 3.9 billion-a-year plastic bag habit is for them to be banned at state government level.

In the meantime, Coles and Woolworths continue to sell a range of reusable bags, and Woolies has a policy of not offering a bag for three items or less. To address the issue, all supermarkets collect used shopping bags. Coles also collects polypropylene bags, or ‘green bags’ and turns them into outdoor furniture for schools.

All four supermarket chains are signatories to the Australian Packaging Covenant (APC), a voluntary agreement between government and industry to reduce waste and improve recycling of post-consumer packaging. Coles has assessed around half its Coles-branded products against the APC’s Sustainable Packaging Guidelines and will review the worst. Meanwhile Woolies is on target to review half of its own-brand products by 2015. ALDI plans to have assessed 100 per cent of its exclusive products by 2014.

The Coles-Woolworths duopoly

Australia has one of the most highly concentrated supermarket industries in the developed world, with Coles and Woolworths together claiming up to 80 per cent of the grocery market. The danger of the duopoly is that the supermarkets have too much power, while suppliers are trapped and forced to accept prices and conditions that may be unsustainable in the long run. The ‘Big Two’ have been known to crowd out competition by buying land their competitors might want and negotiating covenants to keep smaller chains such as ALDI and IGA off their turf.

There’s also a real fear they will start using similar tactics in-store. Coles released 1000 new own-brand products in 2011 and Woolies has said it plans to double the penetration of its private-label brands in the next five years. Where does that leave smaller local manufacturers? According to Senator Kim Carr, in his former capacity as Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, replacing brand names with private-label goods will “cripple innovation, destroy jobs and erode our capabilities as a food-producing nation”.

Then there are the price wars. Customers might save money, but at what cost? If prices are unsustainable, farmers and food producers will go out of business and we’ll be buying imported goods before long.
Food industry bodies have called for a supermarket ombudsman to curb the supermarkets’ power, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says it needs individual suppliers to come forward with specific examples of supermarkets abusing their power, risking the supplier’s spot on the supermarket shelf.

To support the Australian food industry, shop at independent grocers and small supermarkets, and choose only Australian brands and ingredients at the big supermarkets.