Friday, 17 December 2010

How socially responsible are Belgium's biggest supermarkets?

Christian Rousseau is the Project Coordinator for Test Achats’ Supermarket Project. Here he gives an insight into his team’s continued dialogue with the three biggest supermarkets in Belgium.

Since the publication of the retailer survey in April 2010, Test Achats has engaged in dialogue with the three leading supermarkets in Belgium, which represent over 70% of the country’s groceries market. The goal has been to stimulate change inspired by our 10 point recommendations, and to address more specifically the priorities for each supermarket.

Eventually the supermarkets took the results of the retailer survey quite seriously - the ranking of supermarkets in the report and our benchmark for this being an implicit driver (eg Lidl was included in the top 4, how so?!). We found that goodwill and openness to ethical concerns is generally present in the mind of spokespersons, but discussions also revealed a lack of insight into specific food chains like pineapples (read more in French). Consumers and retailers are however, not on an equal footing - we are still facing good intentions from supermarkets, but not enough proven facts and actions. Taking responsibility for the full supply-chain remains a sensitive point.

Here is a snapshot of our findings:
Colruyt is the most active in the social responsibility field, although a discrete player (no green-wash addict!). The supermarket has made significant achievements since 2009 when our campaign began, including developing a new purchasing charter with full supply-chain commitments. It is also mainstreaming its own line of ethically labelled products and embedding sustainability in the private label product specifications. The management is also involved in capacity building and support for small scale food suppliers in developing countries.

Delhaize was at first rather, err, unenthusiastic about the survey results and the 'unbalanced' picture regarding supermarket power. However the company has now moved a step further and answered each of our ten action points. Significant achievements since 2009 include the supermarket signing up to a BSCI-based retailer code of conduct for social compliance; providing training for all its buyers; moving towards responsible sourcing of its fish; and a greater focus on fair-trade on the shop shelves.

Carrefour Belgium is willing to move forwards but seems impeded by the inertia of the wider mother company. Its social agenda is lagging behind the environmental one. There has been no significant achievement since 2009.

I’d like to leave you with these thoughts....
Food supply chains are clearly challenging by their complexity. It is therefore the task of all stakeholders to collaborate about the prioritisation of social issues. Local European suppliers of food, too, deserve the attention of both retailers and consumers. They are often the supermarkets’ main business partners, especially for basic products like milk, fruit and vegetables and they must not be forgotten.

Test-Achats will definitely have to update its baseline survey to hold supermarkets to account in the coming years, and hopefully achieve further progress. The case of local producers should also be included in the wider picture.

In the meantime our awareness-raising campaign is running, with the practical help of a responsible shopping guide – the first of its kind for Test Achats and for Belgium. So let’s go shopping…but shop differently!

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