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Campaigners hold supermarkets to account

Some of the UK's leading supermarkets face an uncomfortable summer as campaign groups aim to hold corporate retailers to account for their impact on people and the environment.

May 1, 2004
3 min read

Calls for boycotts, picketing, demonstrations, e-campaigning and direct actions are already underway on issues ranging from whaling, intensive livestock production and illegal logging to supermarkets trading with political regimes with poor human rights records.

The pressure follows the collapse earlier this year of legislation that would have ensured UK businesses operate in an ethical and socially responsible manner.

The proposed Corporate Responsibility Bill, tabled by Labour MP Andy King, would have led to companies being obliged to publish annual reports outlining their social, environmental and economic impact. Company directors would also have been held legally responsible for a firm’s activities, but the government effectively “talked out’ the legislation during the bill’s second reading.

Green groups are targeting Tesco because of the supermarket’s links with controversial whaling in east Asia. Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) say the firm’s C Two-Network, a Japanese supermarket chain 95 per cent owned by Tesco PLC, sells products containing meat from whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Campaigners are encouraging consumers to bombard Tesco chiefs with complaints over the retail of these products because of concern over the future of species including minke, Bryde’s and sei whales. The EIA claims Japan’s coastal hunting is poorly regulated and unsustainable – hundreds of animals are slaughtered each year.

Tesco is also under fire over “appalling’ conditions at one of its largest pork suppliers; last year an investigation revealed widespread suffering and overcrowding inside a Bowes of Norfolk group factory, which supplies much of the retailer’s pork. Vegetarians International Voice For Animals (Viva!) has already held a day of action against the supermarket.

A Tesco spokesperson said: “We expect the highest standards from our suppliers and they are audited regularly to ensure these are met. We take allegations of this type extremely seriously and fully investigated them, as did the RSPCA. Neither Tesco nor the RSPCA found any animal welfare problems, and we will continue to monitor them to ensure high standards are maintained.’

Similarly, Marks & Spencer, which claims to operate with strict product sourcing criteria, faces outrage over a recent film showing thousands of ducks being reared in filthy conditions at a Manor Farm Ducklings establishment – the company supplies duck meat to the retailer. Graphic images distributed at recent demonstrations show dead and dying birds crammed into sheds without adequate water, and led to calls for a boycott of the company’s products.

The allegations come on the back of claims of a green “whitewash’ over advertising that campaigners say flies in the face of the company’s stated commitment to the environment. Recent ads boasted of fresh “jet-set’ pineapple juice arriving in M&S stores just 48 hours after leaving plantations in Ghana. Activists are encouraging consumers to contact the company and point out that aircraft are the most ecologically damaging form of transport, contributing huge levels of carbon dioxide linked to climate change.

M&S is no stranger to controversy, having been subjected to boycotts and protests over its sourcing of products from countries which have a poor human rights record. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have also faced consumer rage over the stocking of products sourced from unsustainable sources; Tesco was last year expelled from a leading environmental sourcing initiative after activists said it carried products made from illegally logged Indonesian timber.

Grassroots campaigners are planning Greenpeace-style actions this summer against stores which continue to stock dubious timber products. Campaigners, including the Oxford-based Corporate Watch, say the rise in consumer led, anti-corporate activity is a sign of growing frustration at the apparent unwillingness of retailers to clean up or take responsibility for unacceptable practices.

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