ShareAction’s Food & Health Investor Engagement Manager, Louisa Hodge examines the key findings in new reports released by the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) and ShareAction on how retailers are rising to the challenge of childhood obesity. 

Read ATNI’s The UK Supermarket Spotlight report here >>

Read ShareAction Healthy Competition investor briefing here >>

 

When it comes to tackling childhood obesity, supermarkets have a huge role to play.

Did you know that 51% of the grocery market is comprised of retailers’ own brand products? You might assume these items are hidden away behind household brands or on harder to reach shelves. They actually make up the majority of the market.

Not only do retailers sell food, but they make it too. This means they play a much bigger role in influencing the food that ends up in our baskets and on our plates than you might initially think.

The type of food that is available to us, where in the supermarket it is found, and how it is priced and marketed determines our choices. This ultimately has a huge impact on our diets, and by extension, our health.

Two in every three pounds spent on food by families in the UK goes to retailers. This is a staggering amount.

And yet, we currently have very little understanding of how retailers are supporting our health. Or even if health is on their agenda at all.

 

The role of the supermarkets in tackling childhood obesity

As seen in Access to Nutrition Initiative’s (ANTI) UK product profile, nearly 70% of products sold in UK supermarkets are rated as ‘unhealthy’. It is therefore is unsurprising that our baskets end up filled with products high in salt, sugar and fat.

When eaten regularly, these products contribute to weight gain and obesity. With two in three adults, and one in three children in the UK overweight or obese, the impact on people’s health and the economy is simply too high to be ignored. ShareAction’s Healthy Markets initiative aims to tackle rising childhood obesity levels. We aim to harness the power of the investment system to engage with food and drink companies.

Working in collaboration with ShareAction, ATNI have assessed what retailers are currently doing to tackle childhood obesity.

ATNI has collated the public commitments of the UK’s top 10 retailers that influence consumers’ food and drink choices. The analysis, ‘The UK Supermarket Spotlight’, gathers information on the reported actions supermarkets are taking. For example, it looks at actions to reduce sugar in products or use clear nutritional labelling. This report assesses the extent of retailers’ public reporting, not whether they are actually implementing these actions.

It takes a deep dive into these commitments on 120 indicators across eight categories related to nutrition and health.

This report is relevant to the public in order to understand how supermarkets are influencing our daily shopping and eating habits. We have also produced a briefing for investors – Healthy Competition – which examines the key findings of the report, and offers concrete next steps to those invested in these supermarkets.

It is also vital for investors to assess the reputational and financial risk retailers may pose to their holdings. Without clear disclosure from these companies on the actions and commitments they are making to create healthier food environments, this is currently not possible for investors to do.

 

What actions are supermarkets currently taking to fight childhood obesity?

The report finds that although most retailers are doing something to encourage healthier diets, the level of disclosure is very poor. It does not provide a picture of the company’s strategy on nutrition and health.

Six out of ten retailers assessed reported on 20-39% of the indicators, with Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer reporting most extensively. The remaining retailers scored on fewer than 20% of the indicators, with Asda and Iceland offering the least public information.

No supermarket reported on more than 40% of the indicators.

Some retailers may have committed to move sweets away from checkouts, to remove cartoons from sugary items, or to reformulate products to reduce sugar, salt or fat. However, poor reporting often means that we do not know whether these actions have been applied across entire ranges of products, rolled out across all stores, or are simply not happening at all.

 

How information can drive improvement

Treating obesity related disease costs the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) an estimated £6.1 billion a year and a total of £27 billion to the economy through reduced productivity and growth.

In order to try and reduce this impact, there has been growing array of regulatory action and public policies to try to address rising obesity levels.

These regulations can have major financial impacts on companies that are poorly prepared to deal with the changes.

This report and the Healthy Markets initiative therefore provides investors with an opportunity to drive major improvements in young people’s diets. It also gives a better understanding of the financial opportunities and risks at stake in the short-term.

It allows asset owners to understand the impact their investments have on society, and allows asset managers to accurately communicate this information to their clients alongside mitigating financial and reputational risks.

 

How investors can use supermarkets’ health and nutrition data

ShareAction is calling for this report to be used by investors as a means of galvanising companies towards positive action. For investors, this is not just about corporate social responsibility. It is about staying relevant and competitive as a business.

Through ShareAction’s investor coalition, investors can use their collective voice and influence for greater impact, creating healthier food options and making a positive impact on childhood obesity.

ShareAction will support the coalition by jointly engaging with companies and encouraging them to significantly increase disclosure and to deliver improvements in their policies and practices to support healthy eating.

Poor reporting means that performance across companies cannot be compared, impacting on investors ability to assess their holdings and limiting the scope for healthy competition between retailers.

This report is therefore key to understand the next steps retailers need to make in order to support the health of the public. It is a clear call for retailers to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the role they play in the obesity crisis.

To aid investors in this work, we will be producing an investor briefing in the coming weeks. This will distil the evidence from the report and provide clear recommendations for how investors can use this information.

For more information on the Healthy Markets campaign please contact Louisa Hodge, ShareAction’s Food & Health Investor Engagement Manager at louisa.hodge@shareaction.org.

Read ATNI’s The UK Supermarket Spotlight report here >>

Read ShareAction Healthy Competition investor briefing here >>