Confusion All Around: What’s the Most Sustainable Dutch Supermarket?

Albert Heijn? No, PLUS. Oh no, also SPAR, Jan Linders and Boni.

This article reflects the personal opinion of Durk Bosma, Research Director of Future of Food Institute. Both GfK and SB Insight were given the chance to respond to the article before publishing. A Dutch version of this article was published on

Over the past few weeks, the enthusiastic press releases were all around us. Both GfK and Sustainable Brand Index announced what the most sustainable supermarket is according to consumers. For marketers from the brands at the top there is every reason to fly the flag. Beautiful content for the press release, accompanied by a photo with a big smile. But something strange is going on. Both Albert Heijn and PLUS are the most sustainable supermarket. And truly sustainable supermarkets such as Ekoplaza are apparently not the most sustainable.

Does the number 1 position in these types of rankings actually mean anything?
Barely. If 2 brands end very close to each other in terms of scores, you may not declare 1 the winner. This is basic knowledge of statistics. It is a photo finish and the photo is out of focus. Sampling theory tells us how blurry it is. In this case blurry enough not to declare a winner. GfK manages to present the scores with 2 decimal places. And based on the 0.02 difference Plus is announced to be the most sustainable supermarket. A beginner’s mistake. Boni and Jan Linders are just as sustainable. And SPAR too. The conclusion should be that no supermarket distinguishes itself on the basis of sustainability and therefore that there is no winner.

SB Insight AB, the Swedish company behind the Sustainable Brand Index, takes rankings one step further. The business model behind the Sustainable Brand Index is to sell reports. And in order to do that, they conduct an annual survey and publish the results. They base their ranking on just 2 questions, a razor-thin score. In doing so, they add up 2 answer options (“good” and “very good”) without doing justice to the difference between the 2 categories. A brand about which all respondents say they are “doing well” will receive the same score from SB Insight as a brand of which all respondents say they are “doing very well”. The absolute scores are not communicated (at least if you do not buy the report), so that we do not know how big the difference is between the brands. Inquiries learned that according to the rules of statistics the winners are sometimes actually the winners and sometimes they are not.

The winner is largely determined by who participates
And SB Insight’s selection procedure is dubious to say the least, but extremely important. For example, it happens that the minuscule Campina Botergoud brand is among the most sustainable food brands, while Jan Linders, which is doing so well according to GfK, is not included in the list of supermarkets. SB Insight could not give a proper explanation for this. But it is clear that a small brand that is very sustainable can never become the most sustainable brand because the selection procedure favors large brands. The question is whether it is justified to declare a brand the most sustainable in its category, if some more sustainable competitors are left out of the equation.

Winners are not winners
The 2 questions are asked to anyone who knows a certain brand (by name at least). It’s clear that if you ask that question to people who themselves have no experience with a brand or company, you are only measuring a superficial opinion. So SB Insight mainly measures brand awareness and a superficial general image that is largely determined by the category in which a brand operates No wonder, then, that market leader Albert Heijn is the most sustainable supermarket according to SB Insight. The question is whether they are really the winner. Nevertheless, we see a proud CEO in all kinds of press releases telling how well Albert Heijn has done. But in reality we don’t know at all how well Albert Heijn is doing, just that more people think Albert Heijn did better than the rest. And we are not sure about that either, because we do not know whether the score differs enough from the number 2 Jumbo (not coincidentally also number 2 in terms of market share) to be labeled as statistically significant.

How to use rankings
Rankings can be useful because they can put organizations in motion. But then those rankings must be based on thorough and transparent research. And all relevant competitors must be included in the list. And the way in which results are presented must do justice to the limitations of survey research. If that is not the case, you are fooling the public and the rankings disguise the sustainability efforts of the smaller brands that are doing very well. And at the same time, rankings ensure that major brands focus primarily on changes with a high media appeal that confirm the superficial image of doing well.

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