30 March 2010
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Responsibility of Supermarkets for Labour

Conditions in Developing Countries


A new report on the impact of supermarket policies in Europe appeared to reveal that better communication was needed between large chains and their consumers before everyday people could begin leading truly sustainable lifestyles, experts in consumption patterns suggested at Headquarters today.

At a press conference on the release of that report -- “Checked out:  Are supermarkets taking responsibility for labour conditions in developing countries?” -– Catherine Nicholson, Senior Project Coordinator with Consumers International said the report revealed that people were increasingly relying on supermarkets for their daily needs, but very few of the products on sale could be considered sustainable.

“We concluded that these supermarkets are not taking their responsibilities seriously enough,” Ms. Nicholson said of the leading European supermarkets examined in the study.  “We don’t feel these companies are doing enough to [stock or promote] products that consumers could buy as sustainable alternatives.”  While some shops were diligent about revealing product information to consumers, not all were doing the same, she said, pointing to a lack of independent monitoring among certain companies.

She explained that Consumers International, a London-based federation of global consumer organizations, had been asked by the European Commission to examine, as part of an awareness-raising campaign across six European countries, whether consumers found it easy or hard to make sustainable choices.  Accompanying Ms. Nicholson were Tariq Banuri, Director of the Division of Sustainable Development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs; Thomas Graedel, Director of the Center for Industrial Ecology; and Jim Fava, Managing Director of Five Winds International.  The report’s launch preceded a discussion on sustainable production and consumption patterns, to be held at the United Nations in May.

Ms. Nicholson said that in addition to calling on shops to stock more certified products, Consumers International was also asking that safeguards be developed to increase consumer confidence in mainstream products.  It was also calling on corporations to implement better policies on working conditions, and to ensure they were not undermined by aggressive procurement policies.  “Consumers [need to know] that what they bought were not at the expense of other people’s human rights,” she said, adding that Consumers International had followed one tropical product from the production stage to its debut on the supermarket shelves, and would release that report in September or October.

Mr. Fava, whose firm was engaged in sustainability management consulting, encouraged companies pondering how to reduce their environmental impact to look beyond the place of production, consider the sources of their raw materials, and think about the manner in which their goods would be disposed of at the end of their life cycle.  He explained that the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry ha begun working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2002 to form the Life Cycle Initiative, which promoted the standardization of life cycle assessments.  Current projects centred on how to integrate information into product design, marketing and raw materials-sourcing, as well as improving sustainability know-how along the supply chain.

The Life Cycle Initiative was also studying the possibility of producing the environmental equivalent of a nutritional label, which would reveal the amounts of energy, water and waste associated with a given product, he said.  Most board rooms and chief executives were committed to advancing sustainability, but with multiple locations around the world, and relationships with thousands of suppliers, large corporations needed time to integrate that philosophy from procurement to marketing and design.

Mr. Graedel, also a member of an international panel on sustainable resource management, said a report on the world’s stock of usable metal and the rate of metal recycling would be produced in May.  In the coming years, the panel would train its focus on larger questions, such as how much more metal the world could mine, and how cultural and societal norms could heighten or reduce future demand.  “This is, in some sense, a technical question but much more a societal and cultural question,” he said, adding that there was “quite a bit of discussion” among experts in the field about the need to change cultures rather than changing technologies.

Mr. Banuri said the United Nations would lead its own stock-taking exercise in May, when the Commission on Sustainable Development would meet to discuss, among other subjects, the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns.  He said an expert briefing had been held today in preparation for the Commission’s session, noting that, while the 10-year framework had been in effect for some time, action must be taken to convert an aspiration for sustainability into something more meaningful for both producers and consumers alike.

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For information media • not an official record