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How supermarkets are championing local producers

How supermarkets are championing local producers

By Melinda Varley

Most people are coming to realise the environmental and economic benefits of eating local, seasonal produce. The supermarkets have spotted a marketing niche and most now have local or regional sourcing policies, but is this new trend just a greenwash?

Transporting food around the world is damaging to the environment, and with 37 per cent of our food coming from other countries costs are increasing.  

At a time when there is considerable focus on global security and the environment, it makes sense to cut food miles and to support British-produced food. If all food was consumed with in 20km of where it was produced the country would save 2.1 billion in environmental and congestion costs according to Farmers Weekly magazine.

Air freight is rising also, and although it represents just one per cent of food miles, it accounts for 11 per cent of food mile CO2 emissions.

Consumer’s concern over carbon emissions and sustainability have sparked a rise in farmer’s markets. In 1997 there were no farmers markets in the UK, now there are a total of 240 generating £65 million a year.

Time for the supermarkets to cash in

A recent report published by the National Consumer Council (NCC) revealed that supermarkets were responding to their customer requests, and making efforts to both stock organic and locally-grown produce in a bid to become more sustainable and ethical in their buying and operating policies.

Adam Fisher, spokesperson for Tesco, said, “We know the demand is there as our recent research shows us 84 per cent of customers we asked want to buy locally produced goods. It is not too surprising this is the case as the trend for British produce which we saw perhaps 15 or so years ago has simply moved on to a desire to see local areas supported.

“Local food and drink is seen as a badge of quality by consumers and there is no reason a  company like Tesco wouldn't stock the fantastic variety of great produce we see all over the UK.”

Waitrose has also made big efforts over the past year to entice the green consumer with its marketing campaign that pictures UK farmers, fishermen and food producers, and announces the range of UK-produced food available across its stores.

Most of the supermarket chains in the UK including Sainsbury’s and Tesco now have aisles that stock exclusively organic produce, which is clearly labelled as such. Fruit and vegetables are also labelled organic, and given a special section of the fresh produce aisle.

Elaine Robinson, general manager of emerging markets at Asda, said, "Asda shoppers are looking for quality at an affordable price, whether that's organic or non-organic.  Even though people have less cash to spend, our customers can choose to buy organic products knowing they're getting high quality groceries at the best value. Our growth over the past year, whilst people have increasingly less to spend, shows that our customers agree."

Trends, such as the wish to buy organic, ideally locally-grown food, start small, but supermarkets and other retailers are constantly monitoring the sale of their stock and listening to consumer feedback, so the bosses are aware of what shoppers want.

Tesco’s Fisher added, “We have regional buying offices around the country whose job it is to work with smaller suppliers to make sure we see what they, we and the customer wants; their product in our stores."

Most consumers across the UK will now have a farmer's market in easy reach, and perhaps a farm shop, or a local food co-operative, as well as small corner shops, and big supermarkets.

The range of food and other products available allow all consumers to be 'green' shoppers, choosing from a great selection of organic, locally grown, and ethically sourced goods.

Tesco is predicting to generate more than £500 million from the sales of locally produced food and drinks by the end of this year alone. Sales of locally sourced goods at the retail giant have risen by 40 per cent in 2008 as the supermarket giant now stocks more than 3,000 regional products.

Sainbury’s is currently running a Supply Something New partnership with Food from Britain. Under the initiative, Sainsbury’s stocks Cornish camembert in the South West, Pont Gar cheese in Wales and Lincolnshire poacher cheese in its East Midland stores.

The demand for local products is at its highest in the South West, East Anglia and Scotland with two thirds of consumers in London claiming they are keen to buy more regional produce.

Crunch time

While consumers remain eager to support local farmers and their produce, it is no secret that this privilege costs slightly more than imported goods. With the economic downturn, far less consumers are willing to pay more for products that are locally produced over products that are imported from overseas.

However, the UK's big four supermarkets have all said they are committed to sourcing foods locally as much as possible - and this should keep the prices relatively affordable.

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