How easy do supermarkets in Belgium make it for us to eat sustainably? A comparative study by the Questionmark Foundation, with the support of Rikolto and Test Aankoop, and in collaboration with BOS+, IEW, FoodWIN and Bond Beter Leefmilieu, sought an answer to this question.
In the past few months, Superlist Environment has taken a close look at the supermarkets Colruyt, Delhaize, Carrefour, Aldi and Lidl (together accounting for more than 80% of the Belgian market share). They examined the extent to which supermarkets are making efforts to reduce sales of animal proteins, choose products from sustainable agriculture, and combat deforestation and food waste.
Following these research results and recommendations from Superlist, Rikolto organised a meeting on 8 December 2022 with key players in retail and sustainability, in the form of a panel discussion called the 'SuperDialogue'.
Together, we sought answers to different questions that contribute to the bigger question: 'How do we take steps together towards more environmentally friendly supermarkets?'
Questionmark is the think-tank behind Superlist. Their mission is to contribute to a healthy and sustainable food system and they do this by providing those in power within a food system with the knowledge and motivation to initiate change. Questionmark's team consists of researchers and communication officers.
'The current food system is not future-proof,' says Charlotte Linnenbank, director of Questionmark. 'We see four main causes of this. Firstly, the changed consumption patterns of the Western population, which puts the expenditures of the health system under pressure. A second cause is that the current agricultural system puts enormous pressure on the ecosystem. The climate and the ecosystem suffer as a result. A third factor is the unequal balance of power in our food chain. This leads to poverty and human rights violations. A final issue is animal welfare. This is not yet sufficiently guaranteed by our current food chain.'
"We still live too much with assumptions and let reality pass us by."
'We focus on supermarkets because they are a leverage point in the Western European food chain. Comparing supermarkets helps to motivate. We presented the survey results in a way that would enable supermarkets to benefit from them. That makes Superlist a useful management information tool within a company. In addition to supermarkets, we obviously also want to inspire policymakers in terms of self-regulation or even legislation.'
According to Isabelle Colbrandt (Lidl), there are a lot of challenges for supermarkets. 'We are part of a chain. Because of this, we can implement best practices from other countries more easily. Here, we often look at the Scandinavian countries. We are certainly aware that we can change the chain. This will also involve making it clear to consumers that sustainable food does not have to be expensive.'
'We definitely need to engage in dialogue. We are indeed a lever, but the whole chain has to work together. We cannot do it alone. There is a lot of potential in bringing the whole chain together, but I would go even further. There are themes that go beyond the competition. Regardless of price advantage or market share, we need to raise the bar together.
"We are happy to be at the top of the results of the Superlist research, but it is certainly not good enough yet."
Astrid Van Parys (Colruyt Group) agrees with Colbrandt's statements. 'It is important to keep the goal in mind, which is to give consumers more opportunities to consume sustainably. This is best done precompetitively by adjusting the assortment and keeping consumers well informed. An important step there is the Ecoscore. Of course, it remains important to sell the labels in an unambiguous way. You cannot expect customers to adjust their diet if they are not informed. That is the task of the supermarket and the entire value chain. Each supermarket can keep its individuality here, but there can be a common understanding as a basis. For instance, as a supermarket you can choose to nudge and activate the customer towards healthy and sustainable alternatives. This by not only directing the customer on buying habits, but also showing them the impact of what they buy.'
Jasmien Wildemeersch (FoodWIN) sees quick wins achievable in three areas. First, there needs to be a way to check in-house what is being wasted. 'This is best done using a measurement method. Based on the measuring points, you can make an action plan in which you formulate concrete objectives. Then you also have to follow up on such an action plan.' A second point concerns concrete actions with a view to avoiding waste. 'The chain definitely needs to be more efficient at the basis,' says Jasmien Wildemeersch. 'So it's also best to check waste at suppliers. Transparency is very important here. A final point is about influencing the food environment in which wastage behaviour occurs. For example, we see that there is more waste with impulse purchases such as those near the checkout and with large packages.' For Jasmien Wildemeersch, it is clear. Food waste should be considered both before and after consumption.
Isabelle Colbrandt recognises the points in Jasmien Wildemeersch's statements. 'We look very closely at what we do ourselves. When it comes to the other actors in our supply chain, there are definitely areas for improvement. We are efficient because the way our product range is structured is very simple. For instance, we have no A-brands. Incidentally, we focus well on the short chain. By buying directly from the producer, we ensure that supply and demand are well matched. Furthermore, we offer customers ‘two days fresh’ at home. In other words, a product is discounted two days before the expiry date. Sensitising the customer becomes essential.
If Superlist makes one thing clear, it is that supermarket self-regulation is not enough at the moment. As Bernard Mazijn, Director at the Cabinet of the Minister for Climate and Environment in Belgium, explains: 'Supermarkets are a tool, just as there are other tools. The supermarket is an important power factor. I point here to the food hourglass of Jan Grievink, who brought out the balance of power in the agricultural and food system 22 years ago. On one side are a few million producers. On the other, a few million consumers. At the heart of the hourglass, you have the procurement centres and a few hundred supermarket chains in Europe. The question is whether the supermarket uses this power factor to participate in making the agricultural and food system more sustainable.' Bernard Mazijn is strict but fair towards supermarkets in Belgium. 'We have seen the results of Superlist. I hear people saying that we should look at the average. If you look at that average, you see a result of less than 15 out of 100 in terms of sustainability score. That is not good.'
The next question is: at what policy levels can this be worked on? For the core players, Bernard Mazijn describes this as being down to the Europe level. 'In terms of Europe, the European Green Deal has already given a good start to systemic changes. Think circular economy and zero pollution. There is also a global common agricultural policy. If the next Commission does not answer that, environmental policy in Europe will crack. So that's crucial for the Commission that takes office from 2024.' The government can also play a role in Belgium. In Europe and Belgium, there is a lot of movement at the level of sustainable policies. For instance, there is the European Due Diligence Directive for the value chain. In Belgium, we have been strengthening the protein shift since 1997 and are going for deforestation-free value chains. According to Bernard Mazijn, what is still missing from Superlist is the subject of packaging in supermarkets.
During the Superlist survey, Rikolto included the voices of Belgian citizens for consideration. This is unique. The assumption is that citizens are the ones who are resistant to change. That is precisely why we looked at how citizens viewed the recommendations that followed on from the Superlist results. What did they expect? What were they hoping for? As Sarah Breaye (Rikolto) clarifies: 'I can report good news: resistance to change turns out not to be that strong after all. The conversations were often about quick wins. The general tenor is that a lot is possible with small adjustments. They do not have to be drastic measures. Students, high school students and a broad group of citizens were all of this opinion. The percentage of consumers unwilling to make changes in their food behaviour was small. The biggest outrage was over the fact that there are very few plans, clear goals or definitions. We cannot keep working ad hoc.'
Influencing the consumer's environment can be done in many different ways. One of these is using labels. However, at the moment, there are so many labels that it becomes hard to know what they actually stand for. As a result, consumers are not yet adjusting their behaviour sufficiently. But does such scoring really work?
Professor Hendrik Slabbinck (Consumer Behaviour, Dept. of Marketing, Innovation and Organisation, University of Ghent): 'This is a very complex issue. So, we see that more and more labels are appearing. At the moment, we don't really know which label is better than the other. What is clear is that a label must be simple yet sufficiently informative. Furthermore, we also see that labels have a rather discouraging effect. Thus, red labels are more likely to push consumers away than a green label is to attract consumers. The labels that benefit consumers personally are winning. Health benefits take precedence over ecological benefits.'
When asked why consumers do not adjust their food behaviour, Prof. Slabbinck gives an unequivocal answer: 'There is a known problem between intention and behaviour. That's a discussion we've seen for years. Labels are not going to solve that. We need one unified policy for that. The landscape is fragmented and does not conform. That's where we're heading for a not-so-rosy future. Consumers see a clear advantage in health, but not in sustainability.'
Isabelle Colbrandt (Lidl) suspects that consumers are losing out. According to her, Lidl is taking steps here. 'This is a role we took on in the last years. We have the convenience of being part of an international chain, which allows us to look at our Scandinavian branch. Scandinavian countries are leading when it comes to sustainability. A great example is Fairtrade chocolate. That is a choice we make for the customer. It's just a question of where we set the common bar. Across all supermarkets. Only then can we take steps together.'
Professor Hendrik Slabbinck (University of Ghent): 'It is true that it is very difficult for most consumers to understand labels. I have argued for a credibility cachet to labels from the government. The question is where to start among more than 250 labels. Right now, you already need a master's degree to even tell them apart. Furthermore, there is no coherent policy across supermarkets. However, a European Ecolabel pilot project does show that sales of products with a common label are rising. There is still a lot of room for improvement.'
You cannot change a whole system on your own. Superlist therefore brought together the core players. Not every comment, statement or question discussed during the dialogue has been covered in this article, nor does it have to be. The purpose of the SuperDialogue is to find an answer together to the question: How do we take steps together towards environmentally friendly supermarkets? Have we succeeded in formulating an answer to this question? We know from the SuperDialogue that an important part of the solution is the dialogue itself. Talking to each other exposes pain points and concerns on the one hand; on the other hand, it gives us the opportunity to work together towards a world where environmentally friendly supermarket shopping is the norm, rather than the exception. We also know that changing a system cannot be done overnight. Let us therefore take the SuperDialogue as a starting point in a cooperative process that makes the world more sustainable, step by step. Then we will already be well on our way.
If you have any questions regarding Superlist, do not hesitate to contact:
Maarten Corten, Communication & Citizen Engagement, email@example.com