Tesco make a big deal of their food donations, but the amount is tiny compared to what they waste.
Corporate charity are two words that don’t always fit entirely comfortably next to each other, but Tesco and goodwill are an even more unlikely pairing. On the 1st and 2nd of December last year, Tesco held their first National Food Collection in the UK, in association with the Trussel Trust and Fareshare, two major food poverty charities. Both Fareshare and the Trussell Trust have been voted Britain’s most admired charity in the past – committed to the support of the vulnerable. Fareshare provides instruction in “safe food preparation and nutrition”, whilst redistributing surplus food from supermarkets to food banks, such as the Trussell Trust.
Tesco’s customers were encouraged to buy an extra item or two from a pre-arranged list during their weekly shop that they could then donate in store. Tesco then supposedly topped up the total quantity of food donated by 30%. Working with a figure given to them by the charities involved, Tesco calculated that from these two days alone more than 2.4m meals were donated, including their 30% top-up. On the 5th and 6th of July 2013, Tesco, the Trussel Trust and Fareshare repeated the event, holding the biggest ever National Food Collection in the UK. This time 3.5m meals were donated, including Tesco’s 30%. In just four days then, Tesco facilitated the donation of 5.9m meals to be distributed amongst those most in need around the UK.
But why, if Tesco have seemingly established themselves as the corporate manifestation of the second coming of Christ, are they still the object of such widespread hatred? Well, with good reason. Indeed we might start by noting that Tesco’s food collection campaign is motivated principally by the desire for good PR, and by the increasing pressure they are coming under with regard to their contribution to national and global food wastage. A closer examination of the above figures suggests that they are not restructuring their business any more than they are forced to do, and despite insisting that they are installing permanent donation points in “some” stores, this statement is but a single sentence in small print at the bottom of their food collection website.
Astoundingly, 32% of all food in the UK is wasted every year. On their site, Tesco helpfully provide an infographic illustrating who is responsible for this. According to Tesco, 16% is wasted by us, the consumer, and 16% is lost within the supply chain – that is, by farmers. I make no claims of mathematical godliness, but I believe that those figures leave Tesco themselves responsible for a grand total of 0%. This is very interesting indeed, especially considering that Tesco have repeatedly and persistently refused to reveal exactly how much food they waste every year. Asda and Morrison’s also refuse to disclose their figures, and both Asda and Tesco refuse to disclose why they refuse to disclose their figures. Sainsbury’s does not. Last year, Sainsbury’s told Channel 4 News that it wasted 44,000 tonnes of food in 2011. As of March 2013, Sainsbury’s have 1,016 stores. Tesco have 3,146. If we are to assume that food wastage is proportionate to the number of stores, we may make a rough estimate for Tesco’s annual food wastage: 130,000 tonnes.
Poignantly, given Tesco’s hasty buck-passing to their suppliers (horse meat, anyone?), Asda have recently altered how their supply chain is operated in a partnership with… guess who? Fareshare. Contrary to what Tesco malignly suggest, supermarket suppliers are not careless fools, casually wasting 16% of UK food. They, like the high street, are at the mercy of the supermarket monopoly-stores who make massive orders and then change their mind at the last minute, or reject wonky carrots and lumpy strawberries – up to 30% of vegetables in the UK are not harvested because of their physical appearance. This is how Tesco manipulates its, and other supermarkets’, (secret) wastage figures. According to Fareshare, the scheme with Asda alone, which will see surplus food sent to the charity instead of back to the manufacturer, will create an extra 3.6m meals a year, more then the entire British public donated at the biggest national food collection ever held.
Let’s take another look at those food collection figures. Using Tesco’s figures, the 5.9m meals donated altogether (inc. Tesco’s 30%) would come to 2,278 tonnes. And by comparing the donated products with those from their ‘own-label’ range, Tesco have valued a kilo of food at £1.68 – just 37p more than a kilo of dog food. The number of kilos donated multiplied by £1.68 = Tesco’s ‘top-up’.
A vital detail and one that is lost amongst Tesco’s self-aggrandising rhetoric is that Tesco ‘top up’ the food donated at the National Food Collection with money. Thus, again using their own figures, Tesco donated a grand total of £960,000 during publicised events from which they made a profit. This would also reduce the quantity of actual food donated to 1,906 tonnes. Tesco insist that they have been siphoning off ‘surplus’ food outside of events since November last year, claiming to have delivered 300,000 meals to the above food charities. In weight, that is just 126 tonnes, less than 1% of my estimated wastage for Tesco, and in monetary value £210,000, or just 0.01% of Tesco profits, taking them at their lowest recorded point in recent history - in reality then, this figure represents less than 0.01% of Tesco’s profits.
Tesco and the other supermarket giants not only exploit and exacerbate poverty in the developing world, ruin farmers, destroy grass-roots competition, manipulate markets and take cynical advantage of the post-industrial unemployment crisis – they also surf a wave of charitable and philanthropic sentiment for the purposes of PR and brand identity. The above figures show just how ‘committed’ Tesco is to solving global food waste, something they insist that they are doing. As their new absurdly patronizing and student-friendly (according to them, not me) ‘Core Purpose’ asserts: “We make what matters better, together.” A little abstract? Let me make it clearer- what sits atop the Tesco PLC website like a crown, and is the first thing that any visitor will see? The share price.
At the time of writing, Tesco refused to confirm or deny the above findings, instead referring me to their 2013, Tesco and Society report, they said they were “developing a new measurement for the amount of food wasted in our operations which can be used consistently across all our markets and will allow us to track progress overtime. We have committed to publish baseline dates on this by the end of the Tesco financial year.” We shall see.
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Image: Martin Bodman, inset images: FareShare; Taz; Ian13