The UK’s grocery retail industry certainly isn’t short of topical sustainability issues and initiatives. We’re accustomed to regular industry updates on issues such as plastic reduction, recycling figures, carbon footprint reduction, net zero ambitions, and reducing food wastage, to name a few. However, one of the industry’s arguably lesser publicised sustainability developments, the horticultural use of peat, could be starting to build momentum.
Peat is an incredibly popularly resource for the horticultural industry. However, the UK’s peatlands are an enormous and incredibly effective natural carbon store. In fact, research has shown that healthy peatlands can hold up to 30 times more carbon per hectare than a tropical rainforest(1). As peat is extracted from these natural bog landscapes, vast quantities of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. The Wildlife Trusts has offered some sobering figures on the quantities involved, stating “The peat extracted for UK horticulture in 2020 could release up to 880,000 tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime as a growing medium. 880,000 tonnes of CO2 is equivalent to driving an average passenger car 2.2 billion miles”(2).
Recently, a number of supermarkets have announced the removal of peat from compost and plant ranges. Tesco has announced that they are “aiming to become the first major UK supermarket to go peat-free on its British-grown bedding plants”(3). Morrisons have stated that they will “phase out peat-based compost at its 497 stores and 303 garden centres across the UK by the end of the year”(4). Co-op has also reaffirmed its commitment to only selling peat-free compost(5).
While these announcements show positive steps being taken, they tend to focus exclusively on amateur horticultural practices. However, the Wildlife Trusts has attributed the huge volumes of CO2 released through peat extraction to both amateur gardening as well as “professional growers of fruit, vegetables, and plants”(6). The Wildlife Trusts goes on to state that “by 2011, amateur gardeners were still buying 1.83 million cubic metres of peat each year, and the professional sector was using a further 930,000 cubic metres”(7). While professional use of peat has declined, amateur use has increased, keeping the combined levels and an approximate constant. Additionally, the Wildlife Trusts also highlights that “since 2013, the use of peat-free products by both professionals and amateurs has flat-lined”(8) – showing the level of peat use for professional horticulture is still a major factor.
In a commercial landscape defined by an acutely environmentally-aware consumer mindset, it certainly pays for grocery retailers to be proactive rather than reactive in taking sustainability issues. As such, how keen will retailers be to remove peat not just from amateur horticultural products but also at a more fundamental level across their own farming supply chain? Or if there are cases where peat usage is minimal or absent from fresh produce production, will retailers be increasingly keen to explicitly publicise this, particularly as awareness around the issue becomes more familiar with consumers?
One thing these latest developments do show is that the scope of sustainability issues for grocery retail brands is far from being a static list of best-practices. Instead, the idea of true sustainability is one that is constantly evolving, incorporating new issues, responding to new research, or simply giving revived weighting to pre-existing environmental concerns.
Author: Chris Fiander