We Compared Popular Chain Stores Based On How Sustainable They Are—Here’s What We Found

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"How do your favorite stores compare in terms of sustainability? We dug deeper into seven of the nation’s most popular chains to find the facts behind the claims."

Think of your go-to chain stores. You know them, you love them—but do you know if their sustainable values go beyond strategic marketing

Some of America’s largest retail giants—like Walmart, Costco, and Target—provide you with all your shopping needs. You can grab groceries, home goods, clothing, and beyond. Other popular chains—like Kroger, Aldi, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s—are grocery retailers specifically.

Chances are, you live near at least one of the chain stores on this list, as most of them—five of the seven, to be exact—were in the top 100 retailers in the United States for 2020. In fact, those five were also within the top 20 (with rankings based on sales revenue). Smaller chains, like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, have also been included in this list for their national ubiquity (with locations in 42 and 43 states, respectively) and loyal fanbases. 

So how does your go-to chain store measure up? We compared the following seven retailers based on several factors of sustainability, so you can get an idea of the impact—positive and negative—of your typical shopping trip. 

The Chain Stores We Ranked

  • Walmart
  • Kroger
  • Costco
  • Target
  • Aldi
  • Whole Foods
  • Trader Joe’s 

Methodology

The factors we looked at include: use of plastic bags and packaging materials, commitments made to reduce waste, in-store recycling options, use of sustainable energy, and if the chain carries sustainable product lines. Each category is scored from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least sustainable and 10 being the most sustainable. We also note any certifications and/or philanthropic partnerships for environmental causes.

Like most companies nowadays, these retailers tout their commitment to sustainability online and in advertisements, given the chance. It’s a lucrative strategy, after all, with recent years showing an increasing number of Americans willing to pay more for so-called sustainable products. Read on to find out how well those claims can be backed up.

chain store sustainability ranking

1. Aldi

chain store sustainability ranking

Total Score: 43/50

  • Plastic bags and packaging materials: 8/10
  • In-store recycling: 9/10
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 9/10
  • Sustainable product lines: 8/10
  • Sustainable energy: 9/10

Out of the seven chains we examined, Aldi takes first place on our sustainability scorecard. While the discount grocer is certainly not the largest retailer in the bunch, it is rapidly expanding. In fact, it is currently the nation’s fastest-growing grocer.

So what sets Aldi above the rest? For starters, it tops ranking lists compiled by Climate-Friendly Supermarkets, measuring actions taken to decrease emissions of polluting hydrofluorocarbons, and by Greenpeace, measuring retailers’ reduction of plastic pollution. (While all retailers in the 2021 report received failing scores, Aldi’s was the second-highest in total and the best of the seven in our list.)

Seasoned Aldi shoppers know the consumer experience is a little different than at your average supermarket. Like at many grocery stores, Aldi encourages shoppers to bring reusable bags, but it also goes a step further and charges shoppers for all bags they don’t bring themselves, offering paper, plastic, and reusable bags (with paper bags a few cents cheaper than plastic).

The fact that over 90 percent of the grocer’s product range is Aldi-exclusive also means Aldi has a lot of power in how it packages its wares. Among its sustainability commitments is the promise to make all product packaging “reusable, recyclable, or compostable” by 2025, and reduce packaging material across the entire range by at least 15 percent.

Aldi stores also collect cardboard, plastic wrap, batteries, and electronic devices for recycling. In 2018, the chain partnered with How2Recycle, a standardized recyclables labeling system. Another partnership with Feeding America greatly reduces food waste and aids local food recovery efforts. In 2020, for example, the chain donated over 29 million pounds of product, thereby diverting it from landfills. 

In terms of sustainable product lines, Aldi has a vegetarian and vegan line called Earth Grown, which features plant-based meat, dairy-free ice cream, and more. The company also encourages customers to reuse containers. Some of the glass pasta jars, for instance, have measurement markings, making it a great option for bulk food items or leftovers.

Aldi is also a partner of the Environmental Protection Agency’s GreenChill program, which works to reduce refrigerant emissions in the food retail industry. As of 2019, it had received over 200 GreenChill Platinum certifications and recertifications—the program’s highest rating. The company was also the recipient of the EPA’s 2020 Green Power Leadership Award.

Through renewable energy, Aldi is hoping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2025. As of March 2021, 111 stores and 12 distribution centers have been equipped with solar panels.

2. Whole Foods

Total Score: 40/50

  • Plastic bags and packaging materials: 9/10
  • In-store recycling: 8/10
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 8/10
  • Sustainable product lines: 8/10
  • Sustainable energy: 7/10

The cult-like following of luxury grocer Whole Foods may be a mystery to some, but there are many reasons why the chain continues to flourish—one of them being growing consumer support for purchasing products marketed as “sustainable,” even if that means spending more

In 2008, the chain became the first U.S. grocer to eliminate single-use plastic shopping bags across all stores in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. Since then, it only offers 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper bags or reusable totes, encouraging shoppers to bring their own.

In 2019, it also eliminated Styrofoam meat trays and removed plastic straws from all Whole Foods-operated venues, like Allegro coffee and juice bars. It also pledges to cut its food waste in half by 2030 through repurposing or upcycling neglected and underused foods, buying imperfect produce from suppliers, donating to local food banks, and composting.

Whole Foods offers in-store recycling for shoppers to dispose of items, including batteries, plastic bags, and corks (as part of a partnership with the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance). Whole Foods was the first U.S. retail partner of the Marine Stewardship Council and also has partnerships with the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade America, Fair Food Program, Equitable Food Initiative, and Fair Trade USA, in addition to sustainability standards for all its fresh and frozen seafood.

Whole Foods also carries a wide variety of sustainable brands, from food to beauty products. It also launched its Sourced for Good program this year. If you see the seal on a product, you’ll know it will “support workers, communities, and environmental stewardship where the products are sourced.”

In terms of sustainable energy, Whole Foods currently has 20 LEED-Certified stores and 70 stores with solar roofs, with more in development. Like Aldi, it’s also part of the GreenChill program and has plans to make its refrigeration greener with refrigeration systems that have a global warming potential that’s 68 percent lower than the current system.

3. Target 

chain store

Total Score: 30/50

  • Plastic bags and packaging materials: 2/10
  • In-store recycling: 6/10
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 6/10
  • Sustainable product lines: 8/10
  • Sustainable energy: 8/10

For a chain store as massive and ubiquitous in the U.S. as Target, the company has some lofty sustainability goals. And, fortunately for the curious consumer, extensive reporting on its progress

As with many retail stores, much of the onus falls on the consumer in terms of reducing plastic waste. Plastic bags are often used by default at checkout at Target, and it’s up to the customer to bring their own reusable option if they want an alternative. But, along with other retailers coming up in this list, Target is taking steps as a corporation to overhaul the single-use plastic shopping bag entirely.

In partnership with Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, Target has joined the Beyond the Bag initiative to invest in efforts to design an innovative, sustainable alternative to the plastic bag (collectively, members will invest more than $15 million). Kroger and Walmart are also participating in the initiative.

To help shoppers dispose of items responsibly, Target offers in-store recycling for bottles and cans, plastic film, and small electronic devices. It has an array of partnerships with environmental and nonprofit organizations, from the World Wildlife Fund and global sourcing experts Laborlink and Verité to water-saving initiatives like Cotton LEADS and the Better Cotton Initiative

Of course, corporate partnerships are all well and good, and it certainly makes for on-trend sustainability marketing. Luckily, Target supplements its comprehensive lists of corporate goals with a host of products already on its shelves that cater to eco-friendly consumers. Besides big-name brands like Mrs. Meyers and Seventh Generation, Target also carries some other sustainable offerings across a range of items

From feminine hygiene products by brands like Cora to zero-waste haircare by Ethique and plant-based oral care by The Humble Co., you might be surprised at the number of sustainable picks on Target’s shelves. Target also released its Good & Gather Plant Based collection this year, which offers products like vegan meat and dairy-free dips.

Of course, for the majority of Target’s products, the shopper will have a hard time steering clear of plastics. Fortunately, Target is a member of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, and like Aldi, has committed to making 100 percent of its own brand packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, along with many other sustainability commitments.

In terms of sustainable energy, in 2019, Target set the goal to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. As of March 2021, rooftop solar systems have been installed on 540 stores with more to come. It’s also part of the GreenChill program, and 1,000 stores currently have LED lights and motion sensors in the refrigerators.

4. Kroger

Total Score: 22/50

  • Plastic bags and packaging materials: 2/10
  • In-store recycling: 2/10
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 6/10
  • Sustainable product lines: 6/10
  • Sustainable energy: 6/10

Like Target, Kroger basically throws caution to the wind with its abundant use of plastic bags at checkout. Although it does offer customers the option to recycle plastic bags and packaging material in its in-store bins, after which is “sent away to be made into composite decking.” And on Greenpeace’s plastic pollution scorecard, Kroger was behind only Aldi among the seven stores on this list. 

Kroger has also joined Target in the Beyond the Bag initiative to fund alternative designs to single-use plastic bags. In addition, partnerships with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the Rainforest Alliance help the retailer in ensuring sustainable sourcing standards for things like seafood products and paper packaging. 

The eco-conscious shopper won’t exactly find a treasure trove of trendy sustainable goods at Kroger, but the chain store does carry a couple product lines of its own that are able to be controlled more closely in terms of quality. For example, the products under the Simple Truth line come without a long list of ingredients, like antibiotics and parabens. It also includes plant-based options, like dairy-free Alfredo sauce and meatless burger patties. Then there’s Bloom Haus for floral arrangements, where all flowers carry the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal.

Kroger is also making progress on its sustainable energy initiatives. It has achieved a 40 percent electricity savings in its stores since a 2000 baseline. It is also an ENERGY STAR award winner. In recent regulatory news, Kroger eliminated the sourcing of plants that are treated with pesticides containing neonicotinoids, a substance which poses risk to honey bee populations.

Although the actual sustainability practices leave much to be desired, Kroger’s transparency is commendable, including lengthy and specific lists of goals and comprehensive progress reports.

5. Costco

chain store

Total Score: 17/50

  • Plastic bags and packaging materials: 2/10
  • In-store recycling: 1/10
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 5/10
  • Sustainable product lines: 5/10
  • Sustainable energy: 4/10

Everyone’s favorite bulk-goods store is, unfortunately, somewhat disappointing on the sustainability front. While you would think selling items in bulk would allow a retailer to reduce the amount of packaging used, Costco often causes shoppers to end up with more plastic waste on their hands than necessary. Oftentimes, the store’s bulk purchasing options are simply plastic-wrapped bundles of regular-sized items. 

The company’s excessive use of plastic packaging has garnered enough notice to produce a Change.org petition with over 20,000 signatures and attention from various media sources. But one thing Costco does do differently than the others is not bagging items at checkout. Instead, shoppers take their carts out to the parking lot and unload purchases directly into their vehicles. So you might avoid plastic bag waste, but you get plastic in other unnecessary spots—from plastic-wrapped jars of Nutella to plastic cases of apples.

Costco has also come under fire for the environmental missteps perpetrated by the company in collaboration with certain suppliers, specifically pollution in relation to the production of beef by Costco’s meat suppliers. All that said, Costco also shares many of the credentials and partnerships that its counterparts on this list boast, such as partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund, Feeding America, and the Global FoodBanking Network.

Under pressure from NGOs and online petitions, Costco eliminated several overfished species from its product offerings years ago, including orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, and bluefin tuna, among others. But in terms of other bold environmental moves, Costco has largely abstained.

Costco does carry some sustainable products, making them accessible and affordable to many. For instance, you’ll find mattresses from Brentwood Home (a subsidiary of Avocado Mattress). There’s also some plant-based food products you can buy for a fraction of the cost elsewhere, like Beyond Meat.

In 2009, the chain rolled out a partnership with Gazelle, an electronics trade-in company, to offer shoppers an electronics trade-in and recycling program. While it received plenty of press coverage at the time, it now seems defunct. Costco also has a (relatively ambiguous) 10-point climate action plan published online.

Part of that action plan is using more sustainable energy. As of the end of 2020, 116 warehouses are using solar power. Costco also notes that it is working on diverting waste from landfills, decreasing the amount of unsold meat and expanding its partnership with Feeding America and local food banks.

But filled with nonspecific language and many estimated “milestone” deadlines looming—many December 2021, some August 2021—it remains to be seen what will become of the action plan as a whole.

6. Walmart 

Total Score: 15/50

  • Plastic bags and packaging materials: 2/10
  • In-store recycling: 2/10
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 4/10
  • Sustainable product lines: 5/10
  • Sustainable energy: 2/10

Just behind Costco comes Walmart, an emblem of American consumerism and retail giant. Consistently ranking as America’s largest retailer by sales, Walmart’s environmental choices and practices have the potential for a major impact. Unfortunately, its current sustainability practices don’t withstand much scrutiny. 

Like many of its counterparts on this list, Walmart uses plastic bags and doesn’t shy away from the plastic packaging of products. On Greenpeace’s plastic pollution scorecard, Walmart ranks just worse than Costco. Like Target and Kroger, however, Walmart has also joined the Beyond the Bag initiative and has pledged funding to finding alternatives to single-use plastic bags. It also has in-store recycling bins for plastic bags and plastic films.

Although Walmart has certainly been the subject of bad press for a largely shabby environmental reputation, recent years have seen what basically amounts to a sweeping “green” overhaul of Walmart’s supply chains and retail practices. From a partnership with online thrift store ThredUP to piloting a bagless store model across Walmart locations in Vermont, one might say a new day has dawned for the corporation as many consumers increasingly pivot to more sustainable shopping options.

Walmart also launched its Free Assembly line, which boasts “organic selvedge denim” made in “LEED and Fair Trade Certified facilities,” among other clothing items. With that being said, there aren’t very many details about what phrases on the website—like “aim[ing] to protect both the environment and the workers”—actually mean in terms of policies or standards. Walmart also carries some plant-based products, like Just Egg and Beyond Meat, as well as brands like Lola.

A controversy was sparked in December 2020 when a lawsuit was filed against Walmart in a California court, claiming that the store was misleading shoppers by labeling many plastic products recyclable when most recycling facilities wouldn’t accept or couldn’t process those items. It currently has a goal to reach 100 percent recyclable, reusable, or industrially compostable private brand packaging by 2025.

Walmart also has the goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, but it’s not clear how that will be reached. Its sustainability hub currently lists ideas, but says those “goals are illustrative examples only.” At this time, it appears that an exact plan has yet to be set.

The bottom line: There’s a lot of flowery language here, and some truly lofty goals. But many of these sweeping changes have yet to take effect. It remains to be seen whether the sustainable future the company writes about in press releases will be realized, or remain forever on the horizon. 

7. Trader Joe’s

chain store

Total Score: 14/50

  • Plastic bags and packaging materials: 2/10
  • In-store recycling: 1/10
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 2/10
  • Sustainable product lines: 8/10
  • Sustainable energy: 1/10

Sorry in advance, Trader Joe’s devotees—this one might burst your bubble. When you think of Trader Joe’s, you probably envision the cute reusable bags and paper bags at checkout. Unfortunately, as Forbes and the LA Times have reported, the cult-favorite, low-cost grocery chain has faced criticism for its excessive use of plastic packaging.

At TJ’s, everything from bell peppers to tea bags may come encased in plastic film. Under this pressure by environmental organizations and the news media, the company took some measures to reduce plastic waste. In 2019, Trader Joe’s replaced plastic produce bags with compostable and biodegradable bags, eliminated Styrofoam trays from packaging, and replaced the plastic sleeves on greeting cards with a compostable material instead.

More changes followed. In 2020, the company replaced black plastic deli meat trays with paper-based trays, removed the plastic clamshell encasing cherry tomatoes and replaced it with a cardboard box, and replaced tea bags’ foil envelopes with a “compostable film.” Even with these changes, there is still so much unnecessary wasteful packaging material. Because of that, out of the stores on our list, TJ’s was lowest on Greenpeace’s plastic pollution scorecard.  

Unfortunately, this is not the only dismal report card Trader Joe’s has received from a third party. The chain also ranked the lowest on Climate-Friendly Supermarkets’ supermarket scorecard for emissions of super-pollutant hydrofluorocarbons, or HFC’s. It was also second-lowest on Green America’s chocolate retailer scorecard. Which, among things like addressing child labor in the cocoa industry, measures a retailer’s commitment to reducing deforestation through its chocolate sourcing practices.

Infamously tight-lipped about its corporate sustainability practices, the sheer lack of information about any environmental commitments is also a reason why TJ’s comes in last. While all the other chains listed had something akin to sustainability progress reports available online, Trader Joe’s “sustainability” information is a singular, short post on its website. In fact, this lack of transparency has led Green America and the Environmental Investigation Agency to launch a campaign to hold the company accountable.

On a positive note, TJ’s carries some sustainable brands at lower prices than most grocery stores, including Impossible Meat and Miyoko’s. It also has an impressive line of vegan options, including meatless frozen meals, plant-based meat (like beefless ground beef, soy chorizo, and baked tofu), grab-and-go meals, and dairy-free cheese, milk, ice cream, and dips.

The Takeaway

chain store

Now, despite what you just read, we’ve got an important disclaimer to share: No store received a perfect, 10/10 score on any factor for good reason. Not even the first-ranked store is the gold standard of perfection, nor does it mean that you’re less of an environmentalist if you don’t swear off TJ’s or Walmart for the rest of your life. (Hey, the cookie butter and Everything but the Bagel seasoning are hard habits to break.)

We also couldn’t make this list without addressing accessibility and affordability. Shopping fresh at local farmers’ markets or frequenting small-scale boutique grocery stores are obviously not the most feasible or accessible options. Especially in food deserts or communities where fresh and healthful food is inaccessible for many, whatever choice is most “sustainable” is not top-of-mind.  

At Brightly, we believe imperfect environmentalism is key to truly advancing sustainability and environmental well-being. Collectively, the small-scale efforts we all make every day have great cumulative potential, and it often starts with where your dollars go. So remembering some of these findings on your next shopping trip—and making an effort to do things like use less plastic, buy locally-sourced when possible, and go for lower-waste packaging—is a great place to start.


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How do your favorite stores compare in terms of sustainability? We dug deeper into seven of the nation’s most popular chains to find the facts behind the claims.

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