Overall, Warburtons wholemeal loaf is probably not unsustainable. Bread is quite a sustainable product, especially if ingredients are sourced in the UK. Palm oil is used, but this seems to be sourced (relatively) responsibly. I was, however, disappointed about the lack of recyclable packaging on this particular product. Especially considering other products they sell are in 100% recyclable paper. Warburtons provides a lot of information on their website about sustainable initiatives, but their ambitions for a sustainable future are not very ambitious, and the impact of their efforts seems exaggerated. They have made admirable efforts to increase the energy efficiency at their bakeries, and to make sure workers there are treated well. However, when it comes to farms and farmers, their plans are a bit vague or lack detail all together. I feel this is ironic for a company who claims to try so hard to educate people about agriculture.
Warburtons Wholemeal medium loaf is primarily made from wholemeal wheat flour, water, yeast, rapeseed oil and palm oil. They also add wheat gluten, emulsifiers, soya flour, preservatives, and ascorbic acid.
Warburtons say they have a sustainable farming plan, which focuses on maintaining healthy soil and water, and supporting biodiversity. However, it’s not clear how they’re putting this plan into place. For example, ingredients don’t seem to be organic, so are probably grown with harmful chemicals. This does not support biodiversity. Their plan is also focused on understanding their farmers’ carbon footprints. In my opinion, simply ‘understanding’ the carbon footprint is not enough to stop climate change. They need to actively help their farmers grow more sustainably. It is good to create a sustainable plan, but at some point Warburtons needs to turn these plans into actions.
The company sources some wheat from farms in Britain, and some from farms in Canada. This is because British wheat isn’t always strong enough. They aren’t clear about what proportion of wheat is imported, and don’t seem to be doing anything to reduce the carbon footprint of this international transportation. As for British wheat, it is relatively sustainable to grow, as there is plenty of natural rainwater. However, in the UK, more arable land is taken up by wheat than any other crop, and monocrop farming like this can degrade soil. Something like crop rotation could help mitigate this impact, but it's unclear if Warburtons’ farmers do this.
Warburtons has a 100% RSPO certified palm oil supply. Palm oil can lead to mass deforestation and degradation of land, so RSPO growers have to ensure conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. However, I question the extent to which RSPO palm is fully ‘sustainable’, as certified companies aren’t even required to stop clearing forests. Rapeseed is more sustainable than palm oil, and it can be sourced from the UK, where it is grown in abundance.
This product is packaged in a plastic bag which can’t be recycled from home. LIke many other companies, Warburtons works with TerraCycle. This allows consumers to bring plastic bags to drop off points, from which they’re sent to be recycled by TerraCycle. This is not good enough, and probably only leads to a small reduction in landfill waste. Warburtons says they’re working towards the development of recyclable packaging which can properly protect the bread. This is a little suspicious to me, as they already have a range of products in 100% recyclable paper packaging. In complete contradiction to their excuses, they’ve said this packaging “does not impact the freshness of the loaf.” Why, then, do they not use paper for the rest of their products?
Warburtons aims to reduce their carbon footprint throughout the production process. They buy all their electricity from zero carbon renewable sources, and have reduced CO2 emissions by 20% over the last 10 years. This is in the right direction, but isn’t a very significant reduction. Their goals for the future don’t seem very ambitious either: their aiming to be net zero by 2050. I fear this may be too little too late.
Their wholemeal bread is baked using the Chorleywood Breadmaking Process, which is used by most mass producers of bread. As part of this process, temperature and humidity are controlled, and energy intensive ovens are used. To make this a more energy efficient process, Warburtons has increased oven insulation, uses gas burners which automatically shut down when not in use, and reuses plant waste to heat hot water systems. Combined Heat and Power technology has reduced the electricity emissions of their bakeries by 56.2%. In terms of combating food waste from production, Warburtons has done a good job. They send zero food products to landfill, instead redistributing surplus to charities or turning it into animal feed. These are admirable efforts, and make their unambitious carbon reduction goals even more confusing. How much impact can these things have made if they still don’t expect to be net zero before 2050? How have they only managed to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% so far?
In terms of transportation, routes are planned to minimise fuel use and trucks are designed to maximise load. They have recently introduced their first 100% electric truck, and aim to have 40+ electric vehicles by 2027. This again seems very unambitious, especially considering petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned from sale from 2030. They have almost 1000 vehicles used for distribution, which means even in their best case scenario, over 900 will still be using non-renewable fossil fuels.
Warburtons priorities seem to be donating bread to those in need and educating people about how wheat is farmed. They launched the Warburtons Foundation in 2022, which provides education, donations and community initiatives. They have a Farm Visits programme, which helps consumers connect with farmers and understand how their food is grown. Finally, they have an education programme which they launched in 2017, which aims to teach young people where wheat comes from. I couldn’t find much information online about the specific farming practices their farmers use, which seems ironic considering their emphasis on promoting education. I feel like more transparency and information about sustainable farming online would be an easy first step to educate the public.
They seem to care about how their workers are treated in their bakeries. They have their own health and wellbeing programme called Live Well, which provides employees with access to onsite health services. There is also an Employee Wellbeing Helpline, as well as healthy meals being offered at work. In terms of farmers or truck drivers, however, there don’t seem to be any initiatives to ensure they are treated well. It would also be good if Warburtons provided information around salaries, working hours and conditions, both in the bakeries and on the farms.