Most consumers want to buy ‘greener’ products and most food companies say they want to sell more of them. Yet the agri-food sector continues to wield one of the heftiest environmental footprints around. It is a frustrating paradox but changing behaviour – corporate or consumer – is notoriously difficult.
People are entrenched in their routines and strive for certainty. Sustainable products can be enticing but too often are expensive or elusive. Food companies are also in a comfort zone. “We’re essentially telling them that they should be producing different products, when their existing ones are selling,” explains Nicole Darnall, foundation professor at Arizona State University.
If it isn’t broken, then why fix it? And yet the food system is, by all accounts, busted. Can brands be trusted to nudge consumers to buy sustainable foods? What are the tactics, triggers and tools that will prove most effective? And will they be enough?
“The climate crisis is urgent and we must pull all the levers to mitigate it,” explains Sally Smith, sustainability and ESG director at Upfield, the owner of Flora and Becel spreads For a consumer goods company environmental labelling is “the best way that we can shift people towards sustainable consumption”, she says. Upfield has already put carbon labels on 120 million packs and is targeting four times that by 2025.
Sustainability labels, whether focused on a single metric like greenhouse gases or a range of them, are popular interventions. A recent review on communicating food sustainability, conducted by Globescan, WWF and UNEP, found that, while the literature is not unanimous, many survey articles and case studies suggest the presence of an eco-label has a “measurable and positive influence on consumer choices”.
Schemes are popping up all over Europe, in particular, with some already boasting their labels are working. Some 67% of consumers using the Eco-score label, available through apps, websites and increasingly on packaging at retailers like Carrefour, Colruyt and Lidl, say they’ve shunned a product because of a low rating.
Done well, these labels should empower shoppers with information they have no way of knowing without them. This is what academics call ‘credence characteristics’. These are different from ‘search characteristics’, like price, or ‘experience characteristics’, like taste, which come before or after purchase respectively. “Credence characteristics you can’t know either before or after you buy something so you just have to trust [the labels],” says John Thøgersen, professor of economic psychology at Aarhus University, Denmark.
Calls for harmony in eco-labels
Most research suggests consumers trust third-party labels more than those run by industry, but are most confident in state-controlled labels. France is to introduce a mandatory eco-labelling scheme. Calls for a harmonised approach for Europe intensified last week as Foundation Earth, which launched a label last year and counts Unilever, Veetee, Danone and PepsiCo among its supporters, coordinated an open letter calling for any eventual scoring and labelling scheme to be “governed by an independent organisation and harmonised across the continent of Europe”.
Such an approach has worked before, most notably with the EU energy label that provides consumers with information on home appliances. There will be plenty more political and private sector bickering before a food label is ready. The scope and data need to be agreed upon, as well as what it looks like.
“There are a number of reasons that eco-labels can fail, and one of them is the design,” explains Thøgersen. In one study, he added colour to the Tesco carbon footprint label that struggled to take off around a decade ago. In a choice experiment, the change doubled the label’s impact. “We also need anchor points or reference points, and that’s why traffic light labels are effective because they show us whether the carbon, for instance, represents a lot or a little or somewhere in between,” he says.
People are tied more intricately to their food choices than, say, their ovens or dishwashers. The real power of these labels is in shifting companies rather than consumers: they force brands to lighten their footprints in order to reduce their red products and grow their greens. Fundamentally, a standardised approach to scoring products could also provide a more accurate picture of what products companies should be pushing, promoting and profiting from.
This would also see efforts aligned on the biggest issues and goals rather than the current piecemeal approach with various labels, campaigns and ambitions spanning everything from plastic-free packaging to targets for sales of plant-based products. Consumers have largely been left confused. “We need real clarity on the key goals and far more guidance on what’s meaningful for customers to know,” explains Susan Thomas, senior director for sustainability at UK grocer Asda, “and we need to do that before we get into the debate around how to communicate all this and which levers we pull for maximum effect.”
Once companies understand the products they need to sell more of they are pretty effective at ensuring it happens. “We can use prime store locations in high traffic areas, with compelling promotions, beautiful designs and bonus loyalty points,” Thomas continues. “Equally as powerful, we can tell our suppliers what types of products we are willing to put on our shelves or promote. These are core skills for all retailers and brand owners but at the moment we lack the clarity on what the ‘right’ products look like.”
Thomas offers two basic questions: what is it companies are trying to get customers to do and which levers are most effective to achieve that? Most likely every lever will matter to some extent, so while eco-labels are sexy they are no silver bullet to sustainable food shopping. “Today’s consumer culture has been built over decades and centuries [so] we cannot expect it to change overnight with one or two isolated interventions,” says Pendragon Stuart, a UK-based associate director at Globescan, a Canada-headquartered consultancy.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development recently came to a similar conclusion following a review of the eco-labels available, evidence of their efficacy and how companies can best use them. “Coaxing and driving food systems in a more sustainable direction will require countless interventions – most often simultaneously,” the council noted.
More plants, please
The need to reduce meat consumption requires little explanation. New beefless burgers, legume lasagnes and ‘chicken’ fillets made by fermentation, are aimed not at small numbers of vegans and vegetarians but fast-growing numbers of flexitarians.
In France, 49% of households had at least one flexitarian in June 2021, up from 40% in 2020, according to Kantar data. Carrefour and Danone led an April campaign to promote more plant-based products, which are low impact and healthy (Nutri-Score A or B).
Results for the ‘Lundi c’est veggie mais aussi le mardi, mercredi…’ campaign, which also involved Barilla, Happyvore, Knorr, Bonduelle and NS Nutrition, are due to be presented at the Consumer Goods Forum global summit in Dublin this week. Speaking to Just Food ahead of the event, CGF health and wellness director Sharon Bligh says the project showed how important it is to make these activities visible, desirable and fun. “To get people to shift or change you really have to put that promotional piece behind it,” she says.
It isn’t easy though. The latest campaign between Unilever and Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn offered a free vegetarian meal gift-card for four people and used in-store and online messaging to “bring to life” the positive environmental impact of plant-based options – and how easy it is to eat more veg. Of the 38% of shoppers who had heard of the campaign, 58% started eating more meat substitutes as a result, says a Unilever spokesperson. Whether they are also eating less meat is not clear.
Bligh reports “incredible” sales uplifts from ‘Lundi c’est veggie’ for plant-based products but “we didn’t reduce meat sales. You can’t just push the plant-based option,” she notes. This chimes with research by the University of Surrey that found Veganuary promotions can increase purchases of vegetarian and vegan products for months but the impact on meat sales is minimal. In some stores, plant-based options shot up 57% and stayed 15% higher than the baseline for three months after the campaign ended, according to researcher Joanna Trewern. Meat sales fell by just 0.06%. “[…] additional strategies will undoubtedly be needed,” she suggests, including smaller meat portions and changes to availability.
In one 60-store case study by Kroger, plant-based meats placed within the meat aisles in a dedicated ‘set’ grew dollar sales by 23%, says Ben Pierce, research analyst at The Good Food Institute in the US. Store environments will certainly have to change because it’s notoriously difficult to explain often complex environmental issues in the seconds shoppers spend at the shelf (even with an eco-label). “We need the ‘greener’ choice to look just like the regular choice if possible,” says Thomas at Asda.
Better for whom?
Sustainable products will need to become the default choice. Retailers aren’t quite ready for that so are employing softer tactics. In the UK, Tesco is trying to nudge customers with its ‘better basket’ campaign. Plant-based foods, as well as those high in fibre, plus low-calorie snacks and products in reusable or recyclable packaging, are all being pushed. The supermarket began by promoting its ‘meat and veg beef mince’ (and it still remains cheaper than all but one of the ten mince products available on its website). “We understand that customers want to make better choices but not have to pay more,” says Oonagh Turnbull, head of health and sustainable diets campaigns at Tesco.
Research may suggest people are willing to pay more for sustainable products but what they say and do can be some distance apart
Research may suggest people are willing to pay more for sustainable products but what they say and do can be some distance apart. Taste and price remain paramount when it comes to food purchasing priorities, while environmental sustainability “trails far behind”; it has been that way for the past decade, according to the International Food Information Council. Its latest survey, published in May, suggests Americans place a high value on sustainability – 39% said environmental sustainability has an impact on their decisions to buy certain foods and beverages, up from 27% in 2019 – but inflation “may be thwarting values-based purchasing”.
Jayson Lusk, distinguished professor and head of the agricultural economic department at Purdue University, says results from the consumer surveys he is running shows people are stomaching higher food prices – at least for now. Taste, price and perhaps nutrition top the priorities, he says, and if brands achieve those then there’s a chance to move the average consumer with an environmental message. “One rule of thumb is that everything matters on some level,” he explains.
Playing the personal rather than the planet health card may be more persuasive. Research by Darnall at Arizona State University tracked the daily consumption of 132 Italian consumers over 30 months and across 370,000 transactions. They found only around 7% of shoppers were really persuaded by the suite of sustainability products and labels – a finding that was “depressing”, she admits.
However, 22% were willing to purchase such products if there was a personal benefit derived from the sustainability label – so if they saved energy, or water, or there was a health benefit. All of a sudden that 7% becomes 29% and “we enter a space where we can really tip the scales”, she explains. “This is where there’s real opportunity to change routines [because] we know it doesn’t take much more before producers are radically rethinking the way in which they’re producing a product.”
There are brands that have made this their raison d’etre – those that have disrupted categories with products that shout about sustainability. “There’s huge appetite for sustainable goods all over the consumer products system,” says Ben Black, director at Belgium-based Verlinvest, the investment company of the family behind brewing behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev that counts both dairy-alternative firm Oatly and ethical confectioner Tony’s Chocolonely among the firms it backs.
Black says he looks for products that could shake up a big category that’s boring or under-invested with traditional brands – “and particularly what we like are ones where there is a fundamental problem that not many people are aware of because that creates an opportunity to champion a solution.”
This kind of disruption is essential but so too is collaboration. CGF’s Bligh suggests consumers need to be “hit from all sides” – repeatedly. Marc Colona, co-founder and CEO at Heura Foods, says allying with other brands that understand the importance of plant-based diets is “a great way to start accelerating this movement. As a company rooted in activism, we empower people through information”, he says. “People’s empowerment should always be the goal”.
There is an important point here and one which many experts are making: that all these levers rely too heavily on companies coaxing consumers and will lead to little change. Can eco-labels, promotions, advertising campaigns – both controversial and conservative – really be enough?
Darnall points to all the nutritional information consumers now have, and yet obesity rates keep rising. Companies have been very good at shifting blame onto consumers, so it’s going to be very difficult for companies to take huge numbers of consumers out of their comfort zones within the timeframes we have relating to biodiversity and climate change and all those other things.
It is here the conversations inevitably turn to regulation. For Smith at Upfield, “there is only so far that brands can go”. There also needs to be a level regulatory playing field, she says (in Upfield’s case between plant-based foods and their meat and dairy counterparts). Carbon and sugar taxes may also play a part, so too mandatory eco-labels. “We have allowed the system to set itself up so that food companies can make money doing business as usual,” says Darnall. “So until we change that equation, it’s going to be very difficult, I think, to create the widespread change that will be needed.”
Despite the precarious position of the food system, politicians are currently reluctant to apply too much pressure. The onus, for now, will be on the private sector to promote more sustainable products, more often. “We’re still trying to find out the behaviour change mechanisms,” says Bligh at CGF, and doing so will involve a certain degree of risk-taking from companies.
“There’s definitely long-term commitment needed in this space and often doing things where we don’t maybe fully understand the short-term hit on financials or you won’t have your commercial teams that follow you. It’s not going to happen overnight.”