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Europe's supermarkets are leading on sustainability

Ahold Delhaize store front

Ahold Delhaize gives customers a health rating in products to nudge shoppers to healthier more sustainable choices. 

Last month, a British supermarket grabbed headlines by promising to push back against the "unfair" price of plant-based foods, which often cost more than animal products. My first thought was that this was a marketing ploy, but The Co-operative Group’s $2.37 million investment in reducing prices will have a real impact. The cost of the company’s own-brand plant-based burgers and sausages will more than halve, for instance. 

The news was the latest in a series of eye-catching initiatives from European supermarkets aimed at nudging consumers to healthier and more sustainable options. In Belgium, for instance, the Delhaize chain has an app that suggests healthy alternatives to shoppers, with a discount of 5 percent or more included to incentivize the switch. The chain’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, analyses thousands of products to determine a health rating and uses a color-coded "Nutri-Score" label to convey the results to shoppers. The ratings arrived in Belgium stores in 2018 before expanding to other European chains operated by Ahold Delhaize. By 2025, they will be used in all the markets the company operates in.

Back in the U.K., rival chains Asda and Waitrose are experimenting with stores that offer more product types in unpackaged formats, from rice and pasta to drinks and detergent. The idea is to cut plastic waste by encouraging consumers to buy and store the products in reusable containers that they bring back to fill up. Asda also has committed to eliminating another pricing structure that inhibits sustainable shopping: the practice of charging more for fruit and vegetables that don’t come wrapped in plastic.

Every time I saw one of these initiatives, I asked myself whether it could happen here in the United States. Likely not, I thought. As a U.K. native who has lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, I’m often struck by America's reluctance to accept such small nudges. That aversion is most evident in the distrust of government initiatives, but I think it also deters companies from overtly pushing consumers towards healthier or more sustainable options. 

Every time I saw one of these initiatives, I asked myself whether it could happen here in the United States. Likely not, I thought.

Supermarkets might argue that their lack of action is due to something more mundane: consumer preferences. "There is less pressure from consumers in the U.S. for grocery stores to respond to sustainability, health and wellness issues than there is in Europe," noted Peter Cooke at the Ratio Institute, a non-profit that works on sustainability in food retail. "Aside from issues like sustainable seafood, U.S. grocery stores aren’t really feeling the pressure from consumers around the topic of nutrition."

I hope Cooke’s explanation is the more significant one, because consumers’ preferences shift faster than their attitudes to big government and big business. And there are signs that the former are changing. Ahold Delhaize operates more than 2,000 supermarkets in the U.S., including Food Lion, Giant Food and other brands. Earlier this year, the company said it would attach environmental and social impact ratings to a subset of its products. The ratings, created in partnership with sustainability database HowGood, reflect farming practices, treatment of animals, labor conditions and chemical use. Announcing the move, the company cited internal research showing that 43 percent of consumers feel sustainability is "extremely important," up from 28 percent pre-pandemic.

Ahold Delhaize’s U.S. stores also use a nutrition rating system called Guiding Stars. What’s more, the company has committed to sales targets for products with the highest ratings: By June 2025, at least 54 percent of its private-brand food sales will be products that receive between one and three stars. Ahold Delhaize can be held accountable to these numbers because it has committed to publishing the sales numbers. 

I’ve written positively in the past about the power of labels, so I’m excited to see how these rating systems affect sales. No doubt other supermarket sustainability initiatives in the U.S. didn’t hit my radar — if you know of one that’s of interest to Food Weekly readers, send me details at [email protected]

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