When my daughter was born 12 years ago, I started researching companies whose products didn’t contain harmful ingredients; who used minimal packaging, especially plastic; who were doing the right things, like using regenerative agriculture, treating their workers well; and donating to causes that matter.
COVID derailed many of us from these efforts as our personal health came first, but now we’re starting to remember the causes that drive us.
I’m not alone, though as a Gen X-er I am not the typical generation to be considered a conscious consumer. According to an April 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center, Millennials, closely followed by Gen Z, are pushing changes for improved sustainability: 71% of Millennials and 67% of Gen Z said climate should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations. Those figures dropped to 63% and 57% for Gen X and Baby Boomers respectively.
And a recent study, Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail, from retail technology company First Insight in Warrendale, Pa., shows that Gen Z and Millennial consumers are most likely to make shopping choices based on values and principles, including environmental and social issues.
There are brands out there making everything you can think of and doing it in a more sustainable way, but the retailers who carry these products—and are carrying more and more of them—are also becoming more sustainable.
One of the original sustainability-focused grocery retailers in the U.S., Whole Foods has a manifesto for what it won’t accept. This includes a list of harmful ingredients it bans from food and beauty products it sells. It only carries responsibly caught seafood; supports regenerative agriculture and bee populations; and in April, launched Sourced for Good, a third-party program that supports responsible sourcing.
Stop & Shop (Quincy, Mass.) and Giant (Carlisle, Pa.) both use an impact rating system from HowGood that analyzes each ingredient in products against environmental and social criteria, including farming practices, treatment of animals, labor conditions, and chemical use. They’re also moving towards 100% sustainable plastic packaging and looking at circular economy packaging in which used packaging is refilled.
Harmons (West Valley City, Utah), diverts 50% of its waste from landfills; is making stores more energy-efficient with initiatives such as alternative refrigerants, solar panels, and carrying sustainable and local products.
Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Meijer is reducing vehicle emissions by using a clean-diesel truck fleet and investing in renewable energy sources to reduce its carbon footprint; it’s working towards packaging all private label products in sustainable ways; and is building energy-efficient stores, often re-using existing infrastructure.
Aldi, which is headquartered in Essen, Germany, but has U.S. headquarters in Batavia, Ill., has it in numbers. The company is working to:
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025.
- Divert 90% of operational waste by 2025.
- Reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.
- Decrease packaging material by 15% by 2025.
- Make 100% of Aldi-exclusive packaging—including plastic—reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.
- Expand sustainable sourcing of coffee, while continuing to source cocoa and seafood sustainably.
In the U.K., The Co-operative Group announced in June that it would drop prices on many plant-based foods, which are typically more pricey than animal products.
And in a country where produce typically comes wrapped in plastic Asda is eliminating higher prices for unpackaged fruits and vegetables and has eliminated plastic packaging, including for plants and flowers.
Waitrose is also reducing produce packaging in its new Unpacked stores. For shoppers who rely on their produce being prepared, the retailer has added produce preparers, who chop and peel unpackaged produce upon shopper request.
Both Asda and Waitrose are offering self-serve unpackaged products that consumers load into their own containers, such as rice, cereal and drinks for Asda, while Waitrose even offers a frozen fruit “pick and mix,” beers, and wine
Asda’s also working with Unilever and the Loop program to provide free metal refill bottles to consumers, who fill them with products like laundry detergent and shampoo at in-store stations.
Marks & Spencer is committed to sustainable buildings that require less energy to run, reduce refrigerant gas emissions, require fewer resources to build, and produce less waste.
Retailers further afield
In the Netherlands, Albert Heijn has reduced its plastic use by close to 7% in recent years and Ekoplaza sells only organic products. In Australia, Coles has launched Together to Zero, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero and commits to 100% renewable electricity. In fact, Australia’s three biggest grocery stores — the others are Woolworths and Aldi — have committed to 100% clean electricity.
This is all good news; I’m feeling less alone in my quest to protect the earth.