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Tesco: Friend or Foe?

By spending a few pennies more in Tesco when I last went food shopping there I picked up this pack of Cherry Tomatoes:

Tesco's Cherry Tomatoes

Why am I telling you this? For 8 pence less I could have bought the regular pack that had, maybe, 5 more tomatoes in. These cheaper tomatoes were a less vibrant red and were obviously not as juicy. That wasn’t why.

The reason was a simple one: this packet was produced from completely biodegradable and compostable organic materials. The paper label with the barcode and nutritional information, the biodegradable polymer wrap and the container itself all would degrade on your household compost heap. As they are made from organic materials too, that means that there would be no net gain in emissions when the gases created during decomposition are released.

I then read the following; an excerpt from the front page of the Financial Times:

Tesco will become the world’s first supermarket chain to assign a “carbon label” to every product on its shelves. The UK’s biggest chain said it would make the labels by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the production, transportation and consumption of the 70,000 products it sells. “The market is ready… We have to make sustainability a significant, mainstream driver of consumption,” Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive, said last night.

Coming from a company that takes £1 of every £8 spent in the whole UK retail sector, this is promising news. Or so you would think. As the Guardian puts it:

The company sells more DVDs than HMV, more shampoo than Boots, and its £4 jeans outsell Levis, Wrangler and Gap put together.

These are the figures Tesco wants us to remember, but there are other, less palatable statistics. For every £1 spent on bananas at Tesco, for instance, only 1p goes back to the plantation growers in developing countries – far less than they need to feed their families. Indeed, the company makes a profit of £1m per week purely from the sale of bananas – enough to employ 30,000 plantation workers full-time and pay them a proper wage.

Indeed, the globalisation of food production – buying it from the cheapest source rather than the closest – has been taken to ridiculous extremes. In a typical year, 126m litres of milk are imported into Britain while 270m are exported.

It continues this furore into the classic ‘food miles’ argument quoting statistics from the lobbying group Sustain. They estimate that the average UK Sunday lunch travels 26,234 miles.

It also states the statistic that an average of one sixth of the money spent in Tesco goes on packaging. In fact, “only 26 per cent of the cost is accounted for by food; the rest is packaging, processing, transport, store overheads, advertising and the mark-up”.

It’s a good start Tesco, but there’s still a hell of a lot more that you need to do.

FT: Tesco to ‘carbon label’ its products | Guardian: Why supermarkets are getting bigger and bigger