Time To Shelve: Comparing M&S to Waitrose when it comes to going green


As part of our #Just1change series, the Time To Shelve campaign asks supermarkets to tell us what they’re doing to tackle climate change (Picture:Getty/Rex)

Working out how to make #Just1Change to help fight climate change can be difficult – but a big one can be deciding where to do your weekly shop.

As part of our ongoing climate series, we asked all the major supermarkets to look at their environmental practices and make changes where possible.

We also gave them questions from you, our readers – and their customers – based on what you wanted to know about their plans for a cleaner future. 

It’s our hope these vast companies recognise it’s ‘Time to Shelve’ certain practices which worsen plastic pollution, increase energy usage or contribute to food waste – and to bring  forward positive schemes – many of which have already been trialled or promised in future.

Answers to these questions varied across the board, but here we’ll be looking at two of the most popular high-end supermarket chains operating in the UK today: Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

While Waitrose ultimately nudged just above Marks & Spencer in terms of green ticks, both supermarkets were keen to highlight plans already in action – for example, looking into promoting more meat-free options, with M&S pledging to double sales of vegetarian and vegan products by 2024.

However, Waitrose said it believed that meat continues to play an essential role in a healthy diet, so would continue to source only the highest quality meat that has been produced with care for the planet.

Refill schemes for customers were also applauded, with M&S offering a packaging-free refillable grocery concept Fill Your Own, which currently operates in 13 stores and includes over 60 lines of refillable groceries.

Meanwhile, with its Unpacked scheme, which was first trialled in 2019 and is so far available in four of their stores, Waitrose is also are encouraging shoppers to bring their own containers, bottles and bags in store, to then weigh and fill with groceries such as dried pasta, cereal, coffee, frozen fruit, meat and fish. 

However, what did disappoint was both retailers refusing to say whether they would consider cutting ties with suppliers who won’t do more to look after the environment. 

We asked our readers to tell us what they think supermarkets can do to help tackle climate change (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

In terms of others efforts we asked the stores about, here’s what they told us: 

Waging war on plastic

Both retailers said there were no current plans to replace plastic bags at the tills with paper ones – but this wasn’t just down to pointblank refusal, as they already supply a range of reusable bags. Offering further explanation, they felt that the effort taken to manufacture paper bags wouldn’t be as eco-friendly as their current solution.

It’s also worth noting that M&S was the first major retailer to introduce a carrier bag fee in 2008.

With one of the biggest complaints from our readers being the excessive use of plastic packaging  – something that creates nearly 70% of our plastic waste – especially when it comes to fresh fruit and veg, we asked each store what they were doing to reduce this.

Both Marks & Spencer and Waitrose said they are actively looking for solutions – with Waitrose now having 132 fruit and veg items sold loose or individually and M&S aiming to have 100% of food packaging being recyclable by next year.

However, with the reduction of packaging, the issue of food waste prevention was also raised in response. For example, some sort of packaging may help preserve shelf life and in turn create less waste, so it was suggested that it’s actually more eco-friendly to find other sustainable ways to do this rather than ditch all forms of packaging completely. 

Another query from our readers was the use of plastic bottles instead of glass ones. However, in line with most of the supermarkets we’ve surveyed, Waitrose and M&S have chosen not to go down this route as both felt that it wasn’t as environmentally friendly as using recyclable plastic bottles.

When it came to shrink wrap, Marks & Spencer report that it is actively removing plastic used to bind individual products together in multipacks. Meanwhile, Waitrose told us it was the first UK retailer to trial the removal of it on tinned multibuys in 2019 – and have since removed single use plastic shrink wrap from millions of own label tinned grocery products, including some from their Everyday Essentials range. Following this, the store has seen a significant reduction in single use plastic, saving over 45 tonnes a year.  

According to Nina Schrank, head of plastics for Greenpeace UK, M&S have made strides forward this year in their plastic reduction plans.

‘Their ‘fill your own’ initiative could be the start of a really significant change across the business,’ she explained. ‘Currently in thirteen stores, we’d like to see this offering scaled up and offered across the country. We’d also like to see them giving their customers more choice of loose fruit and vegetables.’

Ms Shrank added that Waitrose has come top of the Greenpeace & EIA supermarket league table for the last two years. ‘To maintain this position, we are looking forward to hearing more about their reuse plans’, she said.

‘As part of this we hope that a market leading commitment will be made to extend their “unpacked” pilot programme, currently operating in four stores, and to make 25% of their total packaging reusable and refillable by 2025.’

Time to Shelve: The 10 things you asked supermarkets to do

Consider replacing plastic bags at till with paper ones

Remove all plastic packaging on fresh fruit and veg

Consider Swapping plastic milk bottles for glass

Stop selling multipacks in plastic shrinkwrap

Only use energy efficient light bulbs

Reduce usage outside of shop hours

Swap open refridgeration units for closed ones

Turn down the aircon

More options to buy food individually rather than multipacks

Reduce food waste

What about energy?

With many customers worried about the amount of energy wasted by their supermarkets, we wanted to know what stores are doing to try and curb this. 

Both M&S and Waitrose told us they use energy-saving lightbulbs, while Waitrose also currently sources its electricity from renewable sources such as solar, hydro and wind. 

Looking at how much electricity is used outside shop hours, we found that Waitrose has installed sensors to ensure electricity is used efficiently, while Marks & Spencer is actively reducing usage outside trading hours. Meanwhile, each store also report that they’re working on ways to improve how they use their aircon.

When it came to addressing requests to change open refrigeration units to closed ones, both stores recognised that refrigeration and cooling is a significant contributor to their carbon footprint. Each are already rolling out or trialling new technology to improve efficiency, while Waitrose added that it has worked hard to reduce their ‘leakage rate’ – which it claims is now at an industry-leading level. 

The food waste problem

Despite an overarching ambition to be a zero-waste business, M&S didn’t disclose how much waste it produces per year. The retailer also didn’t tell us whether it might provide more options to buy food individually rather than in multipacks.

However, it did report that the store is committed to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030 (relative to a 2017/18 baseline in our M&S operated stores in the UK) and to redistribute 100% of edible surplus food by 2025.

Later this month, the store will also be launching the Sparking Change Food Waste Challenge, which hopes to provide participants with resources and tools including recipes and meal planners that help reduce waste.

When it came to waste, Waitrose did reveal it’s number: 5,526 tonnes in the UK. Like Marks & Spencer, the supermarket also aims to be among the UK’s most purpose-led sustainable businesses and has a dedicated ethics and sustainability strategy to help them do this. 

Additionally, it told us that it has already donated the equivalent of more than 7 million meals since partnering with FareShare, the UK’s national network of charitable food redistributors. The supermarket has also just announced two major commitments – to cut food waste across the supply chain by 50% by 2030 and to help halve UK household food waste by 2030 by supporting customers in their own efforts in the home.

Questions from readers

When we told the stores that that their customers were keen to know what else they were doing to help the environment, Waitrose said it aims to be net carbon zero by 2035.

The supermarket also reported a trial they had rolled out in 37 branches to help customers dispense of hard to recycle flexible plastic packaging in-store. Utilising drop off points that had been in the past used to recycle pastic bags, they have since been refitted to accept flexible plastics, including crisp packets, sweet wrappers, bubble wrap, cling film.

Meanwhile, M&S pointed out that it was the first major retailer to launch a plastic take-back scheme in 2019 and hoped to have it available in all stores by March 2022.

The store, which has been a carbon neutral business in its own operations since 2012, also told us that it has set out a series of interim targets including a commitment to zero deforestation in palm oil and soy sourcing by 2025 and a 30% reduction in volume of plastic food packaging by 2027.

Waitrose also highlighted that it is committed to making greenhouse gas emissions from their UK farms net zero by 2035 and says that it’s own farm at Leckford, Hampshire, will be a vital part of helping achieve this.

Anna Jones, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, took a look at our results, specifically between Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. She said: ‘It’s encouraging at least to see M&S mention zero deforestation commitments but let’s not forget its original target was 2020 so it has given itself a further five years. Waitrose’s pledge to sell less and better meat is good but we need everyone to be able to access good healthy food that doesn’t cost the planet.’

Another expert we spoke to was Jessica Sinclair Taylor, Head of Policy at Feedback, a food and environment NGO, to find out what she thought of the responses from both stores. ‘M&S’ evidence-led approach suggests they’re willing to try out new methods to help customers reduce waste,’ she said. ‘But like all retailers they are hampered by their business model, which rests on selling customers as much food as possible – aided by promotions, store layout and other factors – even when some of that food may end up going to waste.

‘Marks & Spencer’s commitment to increasing plant-based food sales to help the planet doesn’t acknowledge the other side of the coin: the need for them to cut their sales of meat and dairy products, particularly those which are worst for people’s health, like processed meats’

When it came to Waitrose, Jessica stated: ‘Their new commitments on cutting supply chain waste by 50% and helping to halve household food waste by 2030 are important: this is the ambition we should have seen from all retailers for the past 10 years. Waitrose is also working with their supply chain on more sustainable meat, but this needs to be matched with a clear plan to cut their meat and dairy sales by 2030.’

Time to Shelve: What the supermarkets need to do now

As part of Time to Shelve, Metro.co.uk is asking all nine supermarkets to pledge to continue shelving any bad practices that impact our fight against climate change. We also ask that they take our readers – their customers – comments seriously and work harder towards finding ways to make shopping a greener experience. 

This includes: 

  • Cutting ties with suppliers who refuse to do more to help the environment
  • Finding ways to reduce meat and dairy consumption
  • Work harder to reduce food waste
  • Lose all plastic packaging from fresh fruit and veg – or offer plastic-free alternatives
  • Removing plastic shrinkwrap and other unnecessary packaging from all products
  • Promoting seasonal fruit and veg sales
  • Bringing forward future environmental targets – including large-scale reuse and/or refill initiatives

For more stories like this, check our news page.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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