The apparent inability of leading UK grocers to agree on the key social responsibility issues of the day may be a constant source of frustration to environmental and ethical campaigners and government authorities, but Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King sees the food industry’s fragmented response in a more positive light.

“Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in all its different guises is undoubtedly the battleground of today,” King told the IGD annual convention in London yesterday (Tuesday). He emphasised his company’s commitment to the front-of-pack nutritional labelling system supported by the Food Standards Agency, the traffic light colour-coded ‘wheel of health’. However, he defended the choice of rival retailers to implement their own preferred labelling systems, such as Tesco’s scheme which shows ingredients as a percentage of ‘guideline daily amount’ (GDA).

A similarly contentious issue is that of plastic bags. With the average family in the UK taking home 680 plastic bags each year, retailers are in a position to effect monumental change, but King believes Sainsbury’s customers are demanding a ‘softly, softly’ approach with an emphasis on encouraging re-use and recycling. He added that the company had investigated degradable bags and found no environmental case for them, while the introduction of a tax similar to that levied in the Irish Republic would stifle innovation.

Such diverging views and initiatives, King stressed, are a core element of the culture of “free, fair and frank” competition between the major multiples. Each is primarily responsible to its individual consumers, and must tailor its reaction to the ethical and environmental issues of the day to those customers’ values and attitudes.

While King argued it is more important for the industry to debate the important issues than to reach consensus, Waitrose managing director Steven Esom added that the generation of consumers who have just started shopping for their own food needs are the most environmentally aware yet. Unlike their parents, they have been through years of environmental education at school and are well able to review the green policies of the different retailers in their area and vote with their feet accordingly.

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Both King and Esom agreed that it was vital the industry show itself to be genuine in its efforts to avoid accusations of ‘greenwash’, that is to say adopting high-profile pet projects for a short period of time in order to give the impression of concern for the environment when the company is in fact engaged in a cynical marketing activity.