Supermarkets can do more to promote sustainable consumption – NCF

2 November 2010

South African supermarkets have plenty of room for improvement in encouraging consumers to shop in ways that support environmental and socio-economic sustainability.

This emerged from a pilot research study initiated by the National Consumer Forum, focusing on supermarkets in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. The full results and findings of the study were released at a function in the provincial capital on Tuesday 2 November.

“The research also showed on the whole that more could be done to help consumers make more sustainable choices,” said the report’s authors.

The study, funded by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and carried out by the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute, examined certain environmentally-friendly product lines in 18 supermarkets in the city and how these were promoted. It considered waste management procedures and recycling facilities, as part of the way supermarkets aimed to reduce their carbon footprint.

It also looked at supermarkets’ procurement principles and how these could have a more positive impact on the sustainability of local producers and local economic development more generally.

“Supermarkets are recognising that there is much more they can do to reduce their impact on the environment and to help their customers become greener,” according to the report. “Initiatives such as the recycling facilities, waste management procedures, the range of environmentally friendly products as well as the corporate social investment projects show that supermarkets have taken steps towards supporting environmental sustainability.”

However, most supermarkets fell short of their potential to boost local businesses through targeting local suppliers – especially in those companies where procurement was centralised at head office. Smaller towns like Pietermaritzburg were often supplied with goods from outside the area, or even outside the province, when smaller suppliers could have been sourced locally.

Among the recommendations are that supermarkets could:

  • Be more proactive with offering consumers more environmentally-friendly options, and promote these with clear and understandable information
  • Promote local agriculture and organic farming through more procurement from and support for small, local farmers
  • Commit to long-term reduction of carbon emissions and energy consumption
  • Adhere to sustainable seafood guidelines by sourcing only fish stocks that are plentiful
  • Educate consumers about fair trade products and provide a greater choice of these ranges
  • Be open to engagement with local consumer groups on campaigns, awareness and education about sustainability issues

“We were impressed by a number of the initiatives taken by some supermarkets,” said NCF chairman Thami Bolani, “But disappointed that not all of the big players seemed interested in helping us with this research. One large supermarket never responded once to our efforts to engage them.

“Many businesses are clearly still apprehensive and distrustful of consumer organisations, and this has to change if consumers are going to start standing toe-to-toe with big business to ensure mutual respect and dialogue.”

Professor Robert Fincham, MIDI’s State of the City project manager said that Pietermaritzburg was chosen for the study because of MIDI’s focus on a 20-year vision of sustainable development for KZN’s capital city.

“Supermarkets are playing an increasingly important role in consumer behaviour and Pietermaritzburg, despite having a population of only 700,000, is recognised as one of the nine major cities in the country and faces the same challenges as all other major centres such as rapid urbanisation, poverty, food insecurity, energy and water crises. Almost without exception, major centres in the world are re-examining their environmental and socio-economic footprints and supermarkets have become key drivers in city-based economies.”

After the completion of the pilot study, the NCF will be looking for opportunities to roll out this line of research in other parts of the country and on a larger scale.

Posted in Media Statements.

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