20 Sep 2018

Eating more sustainably: fruit and vegetables at the supermarket

Study for the Dutch Consumers’ Association

For the Dutch Consumers’ Association (Consumentenbond) Blonk Consultants investigated the sustainability of fruit and vegetables for sale in Dutch supermarkets. The Consumentenbond will use the results to inform consumers about various aspects of the sustainability of fruit and vegetables and about the policies of Dutch supermarkets. The results are set out in the report ‘Sustainability Aspects of Fruit and Vegetables in the Supermarket’. In our study we identified the environmental impacts of various fruits and vegetables. In addition, the Consumentenbond carried out a number of questionnaires studies, such as a quantitative consumer survey and an analysis of the sustainability policies of Dutch supermarkets.

Sustainability of fruit and vegetables

We investigated 12 fruits and vegetables: tomatoes, green beans, carrots, cucumbers, onions, sweet peppers, apples, bananas, oranges, mandarins, grapes and strawberries. For four of these products we carried out detailed case studies: sweet peppers, green beans, strawberries and bananas. A number of scenarios were investigated to explore the effects of different provenances (countries of origin), packaging materials (such as glass, cans and plastic) and cultivation methods (such as organic and conventional). In addition, we assessed the use of plant protection products. The social aspects associated with the production of green beans and bananas, such as working conditions, were also investigated in a qualitative study which focused on the cultivation phase.

Study design

The environmental impacts of the products are calculated per kilogram of eaten product. This means that the whole life cycles of the products were included in the assessment, from production to consumption. Based on FAO statistics, we identified the main countries of origin of the products available in Dutch supermarkets, as well as the most common production techniques, such as open field and greenhouse cultivation. These data were used to define an ‘average product’ for use in the environmental impact assessment. Three impact categories were used: climate change (carbon footprint) (CO2 equivalent), agricultural land use (m2 per year) and water consumption (m3 water).


The ‘end scores’ (ReCiPe) are shown in Figure 2. The end scores are the sum of the weighted scores for each impact category. The chart clearly shows that climate change (orange) makes the biggest contribution to the product environmental impacts. As the impacts are for average products, impacts of the different cultivation systems, countries of origin and packaging materials are aggregated. However, these impacts have been calculated and presented separately in the four case studies on sweet peppers, green beans, strawberries and bananas.

You can read more about these case studies in the Consumentenbond report (in Dutch).

Conclusions and recommendations

According to the Consumentenbond, making fruit and vegetable production more sustainable requires a joint effort by producers, supermarkets, consumers and government. In the final report, the Consumentenbond makes several detailed recommendations to supermarkets and consumers. Looking specifically at the carbon footprints of the products, the following measures can be taken:

  • Avoid imports by air: air transport involves a larger carbon footprint than by ship. If it is only possible to import a product by air because of the distances involved or the lack of suitable infrastructure, it may be worth considering importing it from another country or deciding not to stock the product (at least the fresh product) during a certain period of the year.
  • Encourage the use of geothermal energy: for greenhouse cultivation, geothermal energy has a far lower carbon footprint than gas-fired heating or combined heat and power technologies.
  • Stimulate the sale of fresh products from the season: fresh products generally have a lower impact than frozen and tinned varieties or products preserved in glass jars.
  • Cut losses: cutting losses reduces the carbon footprint per unit of product and lowers the environmental impact (water, soil, etc.).

More information

If you want to know more about this study and the LCA research method, or if are interested in the environmental impacts of fruit and vegetables, contact Jasper Scholten at jasper@blonkconsultants.nl or call +31 (0)182 579970.