Sustainability FAQs

Are you looking to lessen your impact on our planet? Us too. And we’ve been at it for over 30 years. Read all about how below.

  • Organic & Wild
    • Is everything in your shop organic?
    • Organic certification remains the strictest environmental assurance that we can request, and we will continue to seek certified products and ingredients to ensure you have the best range of organic produce to choose from. Some items, such as salt or water, cannot be certified organic because they cannot be ‘produced’ in the first place. Wild caught fish, and foraged food, again has not been produced – or in this case, farmed – in conditions that are controlled enough to be certified. Honey can only be certified organic if it comes from beehives surrounded by more organic land than the UK can currently offer, hence why our British honey cannot be certified organic. In some instances we also stock non-organic produce where we see a strong ethical or sustainable reason to do so. Everything that is organic on our site is clearly marked with our organic ‘o’. If it is not fully organic, it will not earn this label, but we have our own stringent checks in place to make sure these products meet our ethical and environmental standards, often looking for other respected certifications such as B Corp. With policies, expertise and partnerships as strong as ours, we’re confident that whether a product has been hand-dived, line-caught, foraged, picked or gathered, it’s the most sustainable option we can offer.

    • What is organic farming?
    • In a nutshell, organic farming means food as it should be: food you can trust, food that doesn’t cost the earth, and food where the animals are raised with the utmost care and attention.

      It’s a conscientious way of tending to the land that is kinder. Organic farming always means:

      • No synthetic sprays (pesticides, fertilisers, fungicides, insecticides).
      • No artificial colours or preservatives.
      • Working with nature, not against it.
      • No routine use of antibiotics.
      • The gold standard for animal welfare (even better than free range!).
      • No GM ingredients.

      The main certifying body in the UK is The Soil Association; they certify us as a company, as well as plenty of our food and drink. However, there are also eight other Organic Control Bodies, approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Organic products from abroad will be certified by the relevant body in that country, shown by the organic control code on the label. For organic items grown or produced in the EU, there will also be the EU ‘leaf’ logo on the label. We hold copies of the organic certificates for all of our suppliers. Each certifying body will carry out a regular audit (usually annually) of the suppliers under their control, and we also make visits to them ourselves. Products are tested by the accreditation bodies to make sure they’re organic, and we also do random spot checks for pesticides.

    • How and when did the organic movement begin?
    • Organic farming is a holistic way of farming that works with nature, not against it.

      All farming was organic until the Second World War, when a combination of surplus nerve agents (good for neutralising insects) and a requirement to increase food production saw farmers using petrochemical sprays on their crops. An industry was born, and synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides enabled agriculture to expand rapidly.

      This type of mass-production farming is now commonplace, and over 98% of global land is farmed using these synthetic inputs. Shockingly though, we produce enough food globally to feed 14 billion people, yet we are a population of only 7.7 billion, of which 600 million are undernourished and 1.9 billion are over nourished.

      A group of outlier farmers saw that this new farming revolution was in conflict with nature and decided to skip it, instead farming in a way that promoted biodiversity and protected the countryside. These early organic pioneers, united by a devotion to soil health and sustainability, formed the Soil Association in 1946 to recognise and certify other farmers, producers and retailers who champion the organic cause.

    • Is organic an answer to the climate emergency?
    • We believe it’s certainly a big part of the solution. A major part of agriculture’s impact comes from fertilisers and pesticides made from fossil fuels, which are banned in organic. Organic farms also tend to have lower emissions, and their soil stores around 3.5 tonnes more carbon per hectare on average than soil from non-organic farms. The application of compost and manure instead of synthetic fertilisers helps sequester more carbon, and not routinely using medication to prevent disease in organic animals means their pasture contains more microorganisms, which break down waste before it can release greenhouse gases. What’s more, organic farming produces crops that are more resilient to the effects of climate change, and is increasingly being taken up by farmers in parts of the world already affected by extreme weather.

    • What is biodiversity?
    • Biodiversity, put simply, is the variety of life on Earth. It encompasses the vast number of species of plants and animals, as well as the genetic diversity within and between these species, even down to microorganisms such as bacteria, plants and fungi. Biodiversity also includes the different biomes and ecosystems of which they are a part, including the rainforest, tundra and desert.

      Preserving biodiversity is essential to human survival, because this variety of life provides us with ‘ecosystem services’, such as pollination and pest control, preventing flooding, and providing us with food, clean water and medications. The richer the biodiversity, the richer the services provided. Our farmers rely on a lot of these services in place of the chemical inputs banned in organic farming, so they stand to gain by attracting and looking after their farm’s biodiversity. Avoiding controversial pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, planting ‘edge habitats’ of wildflowers around their fields, and restoring wetland habitats are just some of the ways our farmers are letting beneficial wildlife back in.

    • How does organic affect animal welfare?
    • Organic certification is widely recognised as requiring the highest animal welfare standards of any scheme or certificate in the UK. The Soil Association certifies Abel & Cole and the farms we source from, and their stringent standards cover everything from living conditions and food quality to the use of antibiotics, as well as transport and slaughter. Some of their requirements state that farm animals:

      • Must have access to graze and forage on organic pasture, where only natural fertilisers are used, and pesticides are severely restricted.
      • Must have plenty of space (even more than free range!), which helps to reduce stress and disease.
      • Must have the opportunity to express natural behaviours, such as nest-building or foraging.
      • Must be fed an organic diet that is as nutritionally complete as possible and is free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
      • Must not routinely be given antibiotics.
      • Must not be subjected to painful practices, such as tail-docking or beak-clipping.

      In fact, welfare means so much to our farmers that they go above and beyond even organic standards, earning accolades such as Compassion In World Farming’s Good Chicken award, showing that we’re still leading the way in offering farm animals better lives.

    • How does organic compare to free range?
    • It’s important to remember that there is no certification scheme to inspect and approve farms claiming to be free range, so, unlike the word ‘organic’, it’s a term that can be used for any animal that’s been offered an outdoor space at some point in its life. Organic farming, however, requires a bigger, better environment than free range, with regular inspections and legally-recognised certifications to maintain those standards and permit farmers to use ‘organic’ in their product’s name.

      The amount of indoor and outdoor space provided per animal is much higher for organic farms than other recognisable schemes, such as RSPCA-Assured or Red Tractor, and access to pasture must be available as often as the weather allows, for most of the animal’s life. Furthermore, livestock must be provided with the opportunities to express natural behaviours. For example, pigs must be given the space and materials to build nests, and chickens must be given dust-baths to preen themselves in, ensuring that mental welfare is as much of a priority as physical wellbeing.

  • Carbon emissions
    • What do you mean by ‘zero airfreight’?
    • We’ve always known that how food is transported determines a huge part of its carbon footprint, and that’s why we never airfreight a thing. We champion eating by the season and as close to home as we can get it. But for things from further afield (like bananas), we only ever transport by road or ship, never by air. As government data continues to show, air freight produces significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than goods transported by other methods.

    • What is a carbon footprint anyway?
    • A carbon footprint is defined as the total emissions caused by an individual, event, organisation or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent. As a measure of greenhouse gas emissions, together with biodiversity, water pollution and use, it forms part of a bigger measure of impact called an ecological footprint.

      Since 2020, we’ve worked with Green Element and Compare Your Footprint to calculate our emissions across the three ‘scopes’, defined as:

      • Scope 1: Direct emissions from owned or controlled sources (e.g. gas)
      • Scope 2: Indirect emissions from the generation of purchase electricity, heat or stream (e.g. our electricity consumptions)
      • Scope 3: All indirect emissions (not included in scope 2) that occur in the value chain (farmers and customers, for example) of the company, including upstream and downstream.

      A lot of carbon reporting only covers scopes 1 and 2, missing about 70% of the true value. It takes a bit more work, but we want to be stricter with ourselves, and we’ve been working with the experts continuously to measure and report on our scope 3 emissions too. This helps us to make decisions about our range and our model to ensure that we’re doing our best to reduce emissions through the introduction of our Future Food range, Club Zero and teaming up with the pasture for life association.

    • What is Abel & Cole doing to reduce carbon emissions?
    • Firstly, we’re sticking to our ways. Growing food sustainably. Delivering on rounds instead of timed slots, zero airfreighting, and eliminating food waste are just some of the ways our deliveries have helped customers reduce their carbon footprint for over 30 years. But we know we need to do more.

      Having established our baseline emissions level in 2020, we’ve set ambitious targets for reductions in all parts of our operation. The most significant contributor to this is our delivery emissions, which we are committed to reducing by switching from diesel to HVO and electric vans – which we started to roll out in FY2024. We’ve also worked tirelessly to support a circular economy with our pioneering Club Zero range and Plastic Pick-Up service.

      Our suppliers play an equally important role in ensuring that our food is not only of the highest quality but also produced in harmony with our planetary boundaries. We work with suppliers to report on best practices from growing techniques to modern slavery, and we operate on long term contracts to ensure mutual trust. When products are no longer suitable for sale, we support UK food charities with donations of items that are still edible and everything else is used to feed animals.

    • What makes Abel & Cole deliveries so efficient?
    • From day dot, we’ve designed our delivery routes to minimise food miles and carbon emissions as much as possible. That’s why you can’t specify when you’d like your delivery, and why we can’t guarantee what time exactly it will arrive. By delivering to certain areas on certain days each week, we make our deliveries as environmentally efficient as possible. Good things do come to those who wait in.

      We can do this because we’ve specially designed our vans to carry more than other vans on the road – we even use bespoke pallets that work with our boxes to reduce transporting any air. And having our own driving team means we provide regular training to help them be more efficient drivers. We also remap our routes every day so we can keep emissions down as much as possible.

      And when one of our vans comes to the end of its life, we remove the body, refurbish it, and pop it on a new vehicle. This means fewer materials finding their way to landfill. We were the first people in our industry to do this.

      By delivering to certain areas on certain days each week, we have good reason to believe we make our deliveries with just a fraction of the miles, compared to other retailers.

      Set aside cycling, public transport and feet for a moment, and let us say that there are three types of grocery delivery options: individuals driving to the shop, a shop delivering at a time specified by the customer, and a shop-designed delivery route that has the least impact on the environment. Same day, next day and hourly slot deliveries offered by supermarkets and other delivery services are pretty rubbish for the environment. Vans zigzag around the place, wasting precious fuel, and polluting the air with carbon dioxide and particulate matter.

      A US study, ‘The true cost of convenience’, found that “grocery delivery trucks emitted between 20% and 75% less carbon dioxide per customer on average than passenger vehicles driving to the stores around Seattle, but only if grocery stores could choose drop-off times and optimise delivery routes.” Companies who clustered deliveries by postcode, like we do, instead of letting customers choose their delivery slot, emitted between 80 and 90% less carbon dioxide.

      We then cut emissions even further. Every day we remap our routes (to allow for new customers joining, or existing customers who may be on holiday) so we’re delivering in the most logical sequence – without wasting so much as a cherry tomato’s worth of carbon.

      We continually scrutinise every little thing about our deliveries to make sure we’re being as environmentally friendly and efficient as we can be. There’s always room for improvement of course, and we'll be trying out some vans this year that run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) made from food waste.

    • What is so special about Abel & Cole vans?
    • Abel & Cole yellow vans are green at heart. Every morning, we tweak our delivery routes to make sure that time on the road is kept to an absolute minimum. We were the first people in the delivery industry to design our vans themselves to be lighter, so we could carry more goods on them, therefore increasing the amount of people we can visit in a day with a single van, and reducing our carbon emissions.

      Over the years, we’ve trialled alternative fuels so we can move away from fossil fuels. Our ‘veg van’ ran on recycled vegetable oil (chip fat, essentially) but the engine kept blowing. It turned out the stop-and-start nature of our deliveries isn’t suited to that kind of fuel.

      This year, we converted 100% of our HGV fleet and 28% of our delivery vans to run on HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) which have a significantly lower impact than conventional diesel (roughly 90% lower). We’re also introducing electric vans to meet our obligations under the clean air commitment for inner city rounds. In addition to the changes to our fleet, we’ve also implemented a new system for route optimisation that plans out deliveries so that they have the lowest possible emissions per mile.

    • Why do you only deliver once a week?
    • From day dot, we’ve designed our delivery routes to minimise food miles and carbon emissions as much as possible. That’s why you can’t specify when you’d like your delivery, and why we can’t guarantee what time exactly it will arrive. By delivering to certain areas on certain days each week, we make our deliveries as environmentally efficient as possible.

  • Plastic and packaging
    • What is Abel & Cole doing to reduce plastic?
    • In 2021, we launched an exciting recycling collection trial, where a small number of our shoppers sent back any flexible plastics that their councils couldn’t accept, for us to collect with their boxes.

      We’ve now rolled out this game-changing initiative to all of our green community, making it easier for everyone to help the planet and send less to landfill. This means that anyone who adds one of our Plastic Pick-Up bags to their order can send hard-to-recycle flexible plastic bags and films back to us, along with the rest of their packaging. We collect everything and then work with a trusted partner to turn these flexible plastics into sustainable building materials, right here in the UK.

    • Why are you phasing out compostable plastics from your range?
    • For the last decade, biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging has been seen as a sustainable solution to the challenges caused by plastic pollution. We’ve always encouraged our partners to make considered packaging choices, so we’ve been largely supportive of using these materials to date, and have even introduced some compostable plastic packaging of our own. But as more research continues to be done into the real-world benefits of these materials, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they behave differently in lab conditions than they do in our compost bins. The UK also doesn’t currently have the infrastructure in place to collect and compost the variety of compostable materials that are already being used to replace plastic. What’s more, our focus on recycling and removing compostable plastics from our range will support the move towards a more circular society. You can read more about our decision (including the research behind this) over on our blog.

    • What plastic do you use and why?
    • Packaging has an important role to play in products. It protects products for food safety. It allows us to store and transport goods for extended periods, and it improves shelf-life and quality. It provides useful and legal information about the product contained in it. It is used to segregate products (for example, allergens or organic/non-organic lines). It also offers convenience and portion control options.

      However, packaging brings with it several challenges, such as the use of valuable resources and the environmental impact of producing them, the contribution to waste streams if not recycled, and the implications of any repurposing or recovery. Which is why we have a Refuse. Reuse. Recycle. packaging strategy in place.

      We have always been aware of the importance of the packaging used in our products, and it has been a priority to eliminate it wherever possible. Packaging pollution is not only a serious environmental concern, it’s also a huge waste of valuable materials. So, we continuously challenge ourselves to find new ways to maximise the service life of materials so that we don’t rely on inefficient waste management infrastructure. That’s why we launched Club Zero, which is a pioneering refill system empowering our customers to take part in the circular economy.

      Please refer to Recycle Now to check what plastics are collected by your local authority. And check out our Packaging FAQ for guidance on what to return, recycle, or repurpose.

    • Why is reusable plastic better than glass for Club Zero Refillable Milk?
    • Our breakthrough plastic bottle innovation – the first of its kind in the UK – will cut the carbon footprint of our single-use milk bottles in half after just four returns compared to heavier glass bottles, which would take over 15 returns to reach similar emissions savings. To read more about the science behind this, check out our blog.

    • What do I do with the packaging I get from Abel & Cole?
    • Check out our Packaging FAQ for guidance on what to return, recycle, or repurpose.

    • How else can I reduce plastic at home?
  • Community
    • How does Abel & Cole give back to the community?
    • As well as setting up a thriving volunteer programme for our staff to donate their time, we regularly contribute to causes close to our hearts. Of course, food is what we do best, and we provide ongoing support for charities such as City Harvest and School Food Matters. We donate supplies to cooking classes, provide organic fruit to schools, and support fundraising events such as Walk the Walk’s London Moonwalk. We’re always on the lookout for more opportunities to give back, so do let us know of any organisations or initiatives you think we could support. To read more about our latest charitable initiatives, head to our blog.

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Abel & Cole Limited,
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