The government has been told to re-examine the remit of the Office of Fair Trading to stop supermarkets abusing suppliers.

The Sustainable Development Commission, the independent government adviser on sustainable development, published a report on Saturday (16 February) saying the government will fail to meet its targets on health, waste, climate change and fair trade without tackling the major multiples.

The Commission says “too many supermarket practices are unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable”.

With regard to the relationships between suppliers and supermarkets the SDC found stakeholders were deeply concerned about supermarkets’ poor record on treatment of suppliers.

It is widely felt that the “OFT code of practice to ensure buyer power does not lead to exploitation, is weak and not fit for purpose”, says the report.

To rectify the situation the SDC recommends:

  • The government must examine the role and remit of the OFT to ensure it safeguards fairness throughout supply chains
  • The government must develop an enforceable definition of ‘local’ food, and promote fair trade standard systems incorporating environmental sustainability, instead of leaving it to NGOs
  • Overseas aid policy must encourage sustainable development with increased access to trade, rather than focusing on trade alone

More than 70% of UK groceries are sold by ‘the big four’ supermarket chains – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons.

While the government maintains an official ‘hands-off’ approach to supermarkets, the SDC found 19 Whitehall departments with a total of almost one hundred policy responsibilities related to supermarkets and food.

However, despite some encouraging initiatives, too many supermarket products and practices are still unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable.

Impossible to achieve targets

Conflicting policies from different areas of government are also making it impossible to achieve targets, says the SDC. For example, Department of Health advice to eat more fish is cutting across attempts to preserve endangered fish stocks.

And supermarkets and consumers are confused over the relative merits of ‘local’ food versus the value to overseas development of foods such as green beans air-freighted from Kenya.

Tim Lang, Commissioner at the SDC, said: “Government cannot resolve the problems of obesity, waste or climate change alone. Given the enormous influence wielded by supermarkets, working with them effectively is essential.

Priotity areas

“There are many areas where the government and retailers are already working together, but government needs to be more ambitious. With public scrutiny of retailers’ behaviour increasing, many supermarkets are keen to work with government to develop a green, healthy and fair food system.

“In fact, our research with supermarkets has shown that in areas such as climate change or recycling policy, they are often frustrated by the lack of clarity or long-term strategy on which they can plan for the future.”

The Sustainable Development Commission identifies six priority areas for government and supermarket action: waste nutrition and obesity climate change fair supply chains ecosystems and water.

The report can be viewed on the SDC website by clicking on the link here.