J Sainsbury appointed Anna Ford, the former BBC newsreader, as a non-executive director on Tuesday in the latest sign of the supermarkets battling to show their softer side ahead of an anticipated new Competition Commission inquiry into the sector.
Last week, Tesco, the UK?s biggest supermarket, balanced the news of a 17 per cent rise in profits by making great play of plans to spend ?100m on developing greener energy sources.
On Tuesday Philip Hampton, J Sainsbury chairman, said Ms Ford, who will be paid ?45,000, would ?take particular interest? in the retailer?s corporate responsibility agenda, admitting that this was an area where the company could use some help.
?The board is strong on financial analysis but we are not so strong on other things,? said Mr Hampton.
?There are a lot of fundamental issues in the supermarket business under that heading; what do customers think about Sunday trading, food labelling, selling alcohol to minors, food miles, sustainable fish stocks. We just felt a businessman would have less feel for this than someone from Anna?s walk of life.?
The emphasis on corporate social responsibility has also been stoked by the prospect of another competition inquiry. The Office of Fair Trading is expected to confirm in the next two weeks that it is referring the ?95bn-a-year grocery sector to the Competition Commission.
?As these businesses get bigger and bigger and taking more money, they need to start balancing that with a social agenda,? said Richard Hyman, managing director of Verdict Research. ?The more successful these food retailers become, the more stick they are going to get.?