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Nature and food retail

How can the food retail industry take a proactive and regenerative approach to nature and biodiversity?

Biodiversity makes production systems and livelihoods more resilient to shocks and stresses.

The UK retail industry ranges from physical shops and market stalls to door-to-door sales and online retailing. It is the UK’s largest private sector employer with a customer base of 67 million people.[i]

Total UK retail sales were £403 billion in 2020.[ii]  Food and grocery accounted for just over half of this – £205 billion.[iii]

From the supply of inputs such as fertilisers to farming, fishing and materials extraction, processing and packaging, distribution and retailing, consumption and disposal, food retail’s supply chain has a significant impact on nature and biodiversity.

Food supply depends heavily on considerable quantities of products comprising raw materials derived from living systems, including grains, oilseeds, fish, livestock, fruits and vegetables, and forest products. It therefore has strong though indirect links with key biodiversity loss drivers such as pollution, land use change, over-exploitation, climate change, and invasive non-native species.

In the UK, retailers are going through a long period of upheaval driven by factors including increasing globalisation and public health concerns as well as the rise of internet shopping, growing consumer concern about climate change and sustainability, and challenging economic conditions – all of which have been accelerated by COVID-19.

Consumer interest in ‘conscious consumption’ has risen markedly since the start of the pandemic – a shift that looks set to stay.[iv]

Biodiversity makes production systems and livelihoods more resilient to shocks and stresses, including those caused by climate change.[v] So protecting and enhancing biodiversity has clear business benefits for retail businesses.

As attention turns to how best to create a world that is nature positive, approaches that don’t just mitigate negative impact but go further by regenerating nature and biodiversity are now called for.

With its scale, reach, and the prevailing wind of consumer sentiment, the UK food retail industry now has a major role to play.

Challenges facing nature

What’s being done

As a significant contributor to the underlying drivers of climate change, UK food retail already recognises it has a key part to play in tackling the issue.[vi]

In July 2020, 20 major UK retailers signed a declaration to develop a roadmap to tackle the causes of climate change, coming together through the British Retail Consortium  (BRC) to develop a decarbonisation plan to guide the industry on the steps necessary to accelerate progress to a net zero UK ahead of the government’s 2050 target.[vii]

In November 2020, 63 leading retailers – including a number of leading UK supermarkets and Pret UK – came together to support the BRC Climate Action Roadmap, which aims to bring the retail industry and its supply chains to Net Zero by 2040.[viii]

At a governmental level, the Environment Bill introduced new powers and extended producer responsibility schemes which will make producers responsible for the full net costs of managing their products when they are ready to be thrown away, including their environmental impact, consistent with the ‘polluter pays principle’.

A planned Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – involving a refundable deposit for drinks containers – will sustain, promote and secure an increase in recycling of materials and reduce littering when introduced in 2024. A DRS for bottles and cans in Scotland launches in 2022.[ix]

At a supplier level, many farmers and fisheries are already taking nature positive action. Reforms set out in the Agriculture Act – and, also, the Fisheries Act – combined with further collaboration and support from retailers will help them do more. 

The need for concerted pre-competitive action from retailers working together with their suppliers and other stakeholders alongside government action to enable the necessary technological, behavioural, and market transformations, is now acknowledged.

Many of the largest retailers in the UK now have ambitious climate targets and plans. Under the BRC-led ‘Better Retail Better World’ initiative, major retailers cut emissions by 36% in absolute terms between 2005 and 2019 – ahead of target.[x]

Reducing waste – food waste especially – is another issue in which many retailers are now actively engaged.

Yet despite all this, more is needed – both to meet ambitious targets already set and to look beyond climate change and sustainability and meet the challenge of taking a proactive and regenerative approach to nature and biodiversity.

The time has come for the UK food retail industry to step up to help build a more nature positive world.

Explore case studies

The path forward

Food retailing is the last link of a globalised supply chain and as such plays an important role when it comes to the protection of biodiversity.

Food retailers can influence the decisions of consumers and their suppliers. They are therefore well-positioned to foster sustainability through consumption and to support the protection of biodiversity.[xi]

There is considerable scope for their relationships with farmers to be more collaborative and supportive, for example, and to encourage consumers to buy more seasonal and locally sourced produce.

Addressing the challenge of not just reducing negative impact but actively regenerating nature and biodiversity is complex, however.

While interconnected with many climate change-related challenges, biodiversity has more complex cause and effect dynamics. It is difficult to substitute, and actions often require a locally differentiated approach.[xii]

This resource is meant to provide the food retail sector with some actions to get started on their nature positive journey, recognising that this is a quickly evolving space with a lot of work being done and a lot more work to do.

Detailed here are a variety of positive actions, from quick wins to longer-term efforts. Many of these actions require collaboration – with other businesses, across industries, and with government.

Examples of different types of action are showcased here – not as a comprehensive checklist, but as inspiration for further positive action. Effective action begins with an understanding of the challenges facing nature.

Explore actions for nature
flock of birds flying in orange sky

Responsible businesses have a role to play in the stewardship of our planet's biodiversity, not just for the sake of the environment, but for communities and livelihoods too.

Wai Chan-Chan, Managing Director, The Consumer Goods Forum

CEO's Perspective

Richard Walker, Managing Director, Iceland Foods

The food industry bears a huge share of responsibility for the global climate and biodiversity crises. The way we currently produce and consume our food is simply not sustainable and requires rapid and transformative change.

All over the world, food production is the main driver of biodiversity loss. Agriculture threatens almost 90% of the species currently threatened with extinction. Commodities like palm oil and soy are driving deforestation that will turn the rainforests from carbon sinks into net carbon emitters, further disrupting the global climate and depriving us of a huge wealth of plant, insect, and animal species.

Read more from Mr. Walker

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[xiii] The Consumer Goods Forum











The challenges facing nature

Deep dive into the five key pressures on nature, and how the retail sector can ease them.
Learn more