Impact of Groceries


The Product Sustainability Forum (PSF) is a collaboration of 80+ organisations made up of grocery and home improvement retailers and suppliers as well as academics, NGOs and UK Government representatives. The PSF provides a platform for grocery and home improvement organisations to work together to measure, reduce and communicate the environmental performance of their products.  WRAP provides the Secretariat for the forum.

In March 2013, PSF released an important study entitled An initial assessment of the environmental impact of grocery products which collated the results of 150 studies. It is one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind and its overall objective is to determine which grocery products are likely to contribute most to the following four factors associated with UK household consumption.

Four Metrics that measure the impact of grocery products


Figure 1: PSF study metrics (Source: PSF report )

1. Greenhouse gases – kg CO2 equivalents (Global Warming Potential 100 years)

The term ‘carbon footprint’ is used  to describe the ‘cradle-to-retail’ GHG emissions associated with individual products (in kg CO2e per kg of product). The term ‘GHG emissions’ is used to describe the market-wide GHG impact of products.

 2. Energy – MJ delivered energy

The term ‘embedded energy’ is used to describe the cradle-to-retail energy requirement of individual products (in MJ per kg of product). The term ‘total energy’ is used to describe the market-wide embedded energy across products.

3. Water – litres of green, blue and grey water  (Water Footprint Network approach)

including weightings to take account of relative water scarcity. The term ‘Water Footprint Impact Indicator’ is used  to describe the scarcity-weighted green, blue, grey or total water footprint of products.

  • Blue water = volume of fresh surface and groundwater consumed as a result of the production of the product (not returned to the same catchment);
  • Green water = volume of precipitation evaporated, or taken up by crops, during the production process;
  • Grey water = volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate pollutants (i.e. a measure of the impact of polluted water)

(Water Footprint Network)

4. Materials –  kg of material intensity and abiotic (non living) resource depletion indices (kg antimony equivalents)

Both variables are discussed in this report. However, the difficulty of collecting consistent and meaningful information against this metric for grocery products is noted, and discussed further in Section 6.0 of the study.

Objectives of the Study

The findings can be used to focus reduction actions and interventions on priority products which can have the greatest overall consumption impacts. It does not aim to set an impact baseline for the grocery sector, nor can the information contained within be considered to have sufficient accuracy to undertake a sound comparison of the environmental impact of one product type with another. More research is required before it can be used in this way. The study provides a starting point from which which specific grocery and home improvement sector organizations can focus efforts in developing more detailed measurement and reduction strategies which are specific to their own circumstances and supply chains.

A secondary objective of this research has been to collate information on which life cycle stages such as:

  • cultivation,
  • processing,
  • packaging production,
  • distribution,
  • retail, use,
  • end-of-life

are of greatest significance for different products and environmental impacts. This has led PSF to develop other research outputs, including:

  • Product Category Sustainability Summary documents, summarising the category (e.g. ‘dairy’, ‘fresh fruit & veg’), key life cycle impacts, references and information gaps);
  • Product Impact Hotspots and Reduction Opportunities slide decks outlining product specific (e.g. milk, cheese, potatoes, tomatoes) life cycle impact hotspots, potential interventions and existing initiatives and resources to support organisations taking action
This data will be available on the PSF knowledge base

Study Results

Analyses of top-level household environmental impacts show the production and sale  of grocery products to contribute:

  • between 21-33% to household consumption GHG emissions
  • approximately 24% to abiotic resource depletion impacts (Tukker et al, 2006; Defra, 2012)

The Top 50 

These ‘Top 50’ grocery products indicated below comprise approximately 80% of the GHG emissions associated with producing, transporting and retailing the grocery products consumed in the UK.

The subsequent findings from detailed assessments of grocery product impacts indicate that the following groups of product (listed alphabetically) are dominant with regard to the potential environmental impact (GHG emissions, embedded energy, water) associated with UK consumption and serve as initial priorities for further PSF research.

  • Alcoholic drinks: Cider and perry; Lager; Spirits; Wine
  • Ambient: Breakfast cereals; Canned fish and seafood; Canned meat products; Canned vegetables, soups, pasta and noodles; Cat food and dog food; Chocolate; Coffee; Crisps (potato); Processed snacks; Rice; Sugar confectionery; Tea
  • Bakery: Biscuits (sweet); Bread and rolls; Cakes, pastries and morning goods
  • Dairy: Butter; Cheese; Milk and cream; Yogurt
  • Fruit and vegetables: Bananas; Onions; Potatoes; Tomatoes
  • Household: Dishwashing products; General purpose and toilet cleaners; Laundry detergents; Toilet paper and kitchen rolls
  • Meat, fish, poultry and eggs: Beef (chilled and frozen); Deli food; Eggs; Fish and seafood (chilled and frozen); Lamb (chilled and frozen); Pork (chilled and frozen); Poultry (chilled and frozen)
  • Non-alcoholic drinks: Carbonates; Concentrates; Juices
  • Other chilled and frozen: Frozen vegetables and potato products; Ice cream and frozen desserts; Margarine; Pizza (chilled and frozen); Pre-packed sandwiches; Ready meals (chilled and frozen)
  • Personal care: Bath and shower products and shampoos; Deodorants; Nappies

Figure 2: Top 50 UK grocery ghg emissions, embedded energy, water footprint & consumer waste (Source: PSF report )

Study Graphs

SFigure 3: Ton of food waste and equivalent CO2 emission tonnage at various stages of production (Source: PSF report )

Figure 4: Percentage household consumpton of various retail sectors by household expenditure, GHG and abiotic  (non living matter) depletion (Source: PSF report )

Figure 5: Contribution of individual grocery products to sector GHG emissions (not including consumer use) (Source: PSF report )

Figure 6: Contribution of individual grocery products to sector Abiotic Resource Depletion (not including consumer use)(Source: PSF report )

Figure 7: Breakdown of annual cradle-to-retail grocery GHG emissions by category(Source: PSF report )

Figure 8: Top 70 grocery products contributing to annual cradle-to-retail GHG emissions (Mt CO2e), based on 2010 sales data. The box shows the interquartile range with median values shown as a black line.(Source: PSF report )

Figure 9: Breakdown of annual cradle-to-retail grocery GHG emissions by category(Source: PSF report )

Figure 10: Top 70 grocery products contributing to annual cradle-to-retail embedded energy, based on 2010 sales data. The box shows the interquartile range with median values shown as a black line. (Source: PSF report )


Figure 11: Annual Total Water Footprint Impact Indicator Values for Key Grocery Products (with green/blue/grey split) * Please note variable y-axis for chocolate  (Source: PSF report )

Figure 12: Material Intensity of Food and Drink Products (Source: Wuppertal Institut 2011 from PSF report )