Sustainability FAQs | Abel & Cole

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
    • 100% organic or sustainably wild food
    • 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 treated with respect. 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.

      Almost everything we do is organic; only things that cannot be officially certified, like water, salt, wild game, sea-caught fish and foraged food are not. This is because they have not been ‘farmed’ and therefore aren’t controlled under organic standards. We work closely with all our suppliers though to know they prioritise ethics and environment. Outside of food, our cleaning products, and some toiletries and body care products (whilst eco-friendly), are not organic. Everything that is certified organic is clearly labelled on the website with a little O-shaped symbol, and on the products themselves.

      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.

      To better manage our emissions, we need to measure them first, so we’re working with external consultants on producing an up-to-date carbon footprint report. This will tell us all about the emissions that come directly from us (for example, from our vans) and those we cause indirectly, like the power used to keep our website running. These are reported as ‘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 that’s why we’ve brought in the experts to show us the bigger picture by calculating our scope 3 emissions.

    • What is Abel & Cole doing to reduce carbon emissions?
    • Firstly, we’re sticking to our ways. Growing food organically, 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.

      Our first step is to measure the emissions caused by our service, right the way from the machinery on our farmers’ fields to leftovers on our customers’ plates, so we’ve teamed up with external consultants to establish a baseline and identify hotspots that need attention. This will then help us set ambitious targets that will ensure we meet those of the Paris Agreement.

      In our never-ending quest to perfect the most sustainable delivery model, we’re trialling alternative fuels. We'll try running a handful of our vans on CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) made from food waste. We’re very careful about how we work to ensure we produce as little food waste as possible. For example, any unavoidable leftovers go to charity, so we never send any food to landfill. Now though, anything not fit for eating goes to make CNG, helping to close the loop on any food waste.

      As part of the Clean Van Commitment, we’ve pledged to have zero emission vans in cities by 2028 (but we reckon we’ll get there a lot sooner than that).

    • 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.

      In the next few months, we’re welcoming five new yellers into our fleet, and these gems will run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) made from food waste, which rather neatly closes a loop.

    • 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?
    • Our Sustainability team has been working very closely with all of the packaging we use, and many initiatives are underway. Packaging is a very broad area, and although we would like to reduce the amount of single-use plastic we use in our product packaging, sometimes there are limitations due to current technologies, infrastructures and food safety.

      Over the past several years or so, we have been moving as many items from plastic into cardboard punnets as possible, whilst being careful not to affect the quality and shelf-life of the fruit and veg. We have also been making packaging information available on our website for all items so that you can make more informed shopping decisions.

      We have also developed our Packaging Policy, where we give priority to those materials that are kerb-side recyclable by our customers. We always work closely with our suppliers to ensure the most suitable packaging for each product is being used.

      We launched Club Zero in 2020, which is the first home-delivery refillable scheme of its kind. In Club Zero, we send pantry items in reusable VIPs (Very Important Pots) that we collect, wash and refill to avoid single-use packaging. We are keen to continue to grow this range to include more pantry favourites.

      Our milk cartons account for 40% of our plastic use. We’re working with the London Waste and Recycling Board to analyse the environmental impact of what would happen if we switched to glass or other materials, to understand which option is truly better. We’re currently looking into using refillable tubs for some products. Our Woolcool® packaging is all returnable and reusable.

      In 2021, we launched an innovative recycling trial. A small number of customers will be able to send back their flexible plastics that their councils don’t currently collect, for us to collect with their boxes. We will then recycle those plastics responsibly in the UK. We are hoping to have this rolled out to the rest of our customers by Summer 2021.

      There are even more projects in the pipeline, so watch this space. And if you do ever have any suggestions, get in touch with our award-winning Customer Service team.

      Check out our Packaging FAQ for guidance on what to return, recycle, or repurpose.

    • 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.

      We have always been aware of the importance of the packaging used in our products, and it has been a priority to reduce it wherever possible. There is a rising tide of awareness of the environmental impact that packaging pollution and resource misuse can have, so we will continue to challenge ourselves to do even better by finding sustainable alternatives.

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

    • 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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