Launched last year, Race to the Top was different from the many other benchmarking initiatives because of the wide range of NGO support it harnessed. Some 24 groups pledged to pool their expertise in order to develop a coherent set of indicators that would be comprehensive, challenging and applicable to all ten of the UK's major supermarket chains (ENDS Report 327, p 36 ).
The Co-op, Marks & Spencer, Safeway and Somerfield signed up to the initiative from the start. Iceland and Sainsbury's participated to an extent. But Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Morrisons never even reached the starting line. Waitrose made it clear that it did not feel it needed to join. Tesco indicated a willingness to participate if reservations about confidentiality, the volume of data collection and benchmarking were assuaged.
But competitors told ENDS that the organisers of Race to the Top should have been firmer with recalcitrant firms. They say they were "strung along" by "one or two of the big players" who "never had any intention to engage".
Marks & Spencer pulled out of the scheme this year, saying it could not see the point in benchmarking itself against the minority that remained. Environmental manager Rowland Hill said the project's efforts had not been wasted because much of the expertise generated on indicators and metrics had been used in other fora.
However, he said that companies had to make a decision between spending resources on addressing issues or spending it on benchmarking. "There are an awful lot of benchmarking initiatives around," Mr Hill said. "A point of saturation has now been reached."
In a press release headed "How ethical are our supermarkets? We can't tell you", the Race to the Top umbrella group says that the largest supermarkets have shown "a complete disregard for public concerns around sustainable development."
It specifically accuses Tesco and Asda of "only being willing to engage with the emerging corporate responsibility agenda on their own terms."
IIED's Bill Vorley said that it was clear that the commercial success enjoyed by Tesco and Asda, which account for 60% of the market, meant that they did not see any point in engaging in Race to the Top. He disagreed that there were many other benchmarking projects around, saying that none offers consumers the same sort of one-stop comparison of supermarkets, nor in such a comprehensive way. The project would also have given supermarkets a tool to gauge their own progress on a wide range of issues.
Mr Vorley said: "The supermarket sector is coming under increasing scrutiny as it becomes seen as taking more and more control of the food sector - even though they portray themselves as grocers.
"I can only see that getting worse if an element of third party oversight of the sector is not accepted and welcomed. The DIY approach to corporate social responsibility has had its day."
Mr Vorley added that when companies could not see the point in participating in schemes like Race to the Top - which strove for a middle ground of constructive engagement - the time had come for the Government to "give a push".
Race to the Top will officially be wound down from January. The indicators and other data developed by the group will remain accessible on its website.1