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How to make supermarket chains account for their environmental impact

Game Changers: New rules will put our food system under a harsh spotlight that no amount of pictures of lush fields and smiling people leaning on farm gates will blur

Tell someone you are working on an SDG and you might get a sideways look. But it’s not something that needs ointment. The Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) are a set of 17 goals set by the UN in 2012. They replaced the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000. Cue eye rolls from the cynics about big ambitious global goals. But the millennium goals saw real progress. The number of people living in extreme poverty halved. The number of children not going to school also halved, and the number of people receiving HIV treatment increased 15-fold.

The 17 SDGs are interconnected and include huge objectives such as ending poverty, caring for life on land and life under water, achieving gender equality and ensuring responsible consumption. They come with colourful logos that can be sprinkled over company websites. Goal-washing, like greenwashing, is a real problem when claims to be aligned with the goals are made by businesses that continue to do far more harm than good.

But the ability to pin SDG badges on to the chests of voraciously greedy entities gets tougher this year.

The EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive will do for environmental and social impact what the gender pay gap reporting has done for equality. Accountants will be involved, numbers will be crunched and we will get the real picture. CSRD (no, none of these acronyms are jazzy) will force large companies to evaluate and report on how their operations and supply chains align with sustainability goals. Detailed information, including environmental and social impact and governance, will be required. In theory, hugely profitable supermarket chains will have to account not just for their own impact, but also the biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions caused by their suppliers. This puts the industrial food system into a spotlight that no amount of pictures of lush fields and smiling people leaning on farm gates will blur.


If we get the goals and CSRD to work, we change business as usual into business with the future habitability of the planet at its cold numbers-driven heart. Climate action becomes development, conserving nature part of our prosperity. Protecting habitats can improve our resilience and our mental health, and farmers and landowners can be paid well to work in harmony with the natural world.

Much of the problem with companies who make commitments to do better is that their ambitions are woollier than a flock of sheep. Hands are waved in vaguely green directions in boardrooms, with senior people unaware or uncaring about this “niche” sideline to the bottom line. But that is changing, one set of reportable results at a time.