Sustainable behaviours must begin to resonate with consumers too7 Jul 2022
Food producers, brand owners, retailers and governments must work together to help drive consumers towards more sustainable behaviours, experts warn.
While there is huge industry excitement for new technologies to create more sustainable food solutions, the biggest challenge remains convincing consumers to make a switch, said experts speaking as part of a panel session on sustainable consumer behaviours at F&A Next in Wageningen recently.
“We can have long discussions about the merits of cell cultures compared to plant-based proteins, or what do we do in the milk space, with dairy and plant-based milk or cell-based precision fermentation. But at the end of the day, we have to resonate with the consumer,” said Yoni Glickman, managing director of FoodSparks by PeakBridge, who moderated the panel.
“If we don't resonate with the consumer, basically, we're not doing anything. We're spending a lot of time talking to each other as an industry.”
Dick Boer, non-executive board member at Nestlé and former CEO of Ahold Delhaize, said there is an ‘enormous opportunity’ for the industry to step up in accelerating ambitions towards sustainable food consumption – and warned that the effects of not addressing the issue could be catastrophic for big food companies.
“If you look what the food industry is providing, and also the carbon footprint it has, it can almost become the next oil company,” he said. “We will be challenged a lot, by not only our consumers, but also by NGOs and others to step in.”
Fighting food waste remains critical
The former retail CEO warned that addressing food waste was one of the biggest challenges for every aspect of the supply chain, but put particular emphasis on the need for the food industry and retailers to work with consumers to reduce food waste in the home.
“We need to work with our consumers on how to use the food in a better way because that will already help our carbon footprint a lot in my opinion,” he said.
David Welch, co-founder and CSO at Synthesis Capital, agreed that the issue of food waste across the supply chain is ‘huge’, noting that a recent report showed that it contributed 6% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – making it a larger contributor to the climate crisis than the entire aviation industry.
“What I see, is that most of the focus right now is on pushing consumers to make better choices with how they use and waste food, but I'm not seeing enough on the industry and government side,” he said, noting that governments tend to be huge consumers of food themselves, and that central contracts for food in areas of government and public service could be a huge contributor if they were improved.
He also noted that it is clear certain food products are worse than others in terms of GHG emissions:
“So, I think perhaps there's a strategy of, rather than just saying don't waste food overall, to look to some of these higher emitters like some of the animal derived products that are really terrible at greenhouse gas emissions, and think of ways to better educate consumers on those products,” said Welch. “Reduce reducing consumption, but also wasting less of those.”
Green points: Can adoption of eco labels drive change?
Koen Boone, managing director of the Sustainability Consortium, said an ‘eco score’ type of label similar to that of the NutriScore, but focused on sustainability of foods, could be a ‘game changer’ for the industry in terms of driving consumer change.
“You can see that some retailers already started with an ‘eco score’, but there are also several competitors,” he said, noting that in the UK for example, all major retailers are connected to Foundation Earth, which is trying to do a ‘more advanced’ version of the eco score labels being trialled in other countries currently, while in France it has been decided that an environmental label will be used on foods by 2023.
“The French government system is making an additional step,” he said. “But, also, in Denmark and Germany and in the Netherlands, governments are working on a harmonized sustainability label.”
Boone conceded that while gaining a consensus between producers, manufacturers, retailers, and governments on eco score labelling will not be easy, it will be an important step, since the use of an eco label can then be used in a wider context that can be linked to other type of incentives.
“You can put it on the invoice when you go to a supermarket for example. You can use it as a base on how a supermarket is performing, but you can also link financial incentives,” he said, noting examples of health insurance companies offering discounts on premiums when people buy healthier foods.
“If you have that type of system also on sustainability for all products, all those types of things become possible,” Boer added. “You can have systems where you can get green points, and get presents if you have a certain number of points … creating much more possibilities to influence consumer behaviour than just the traditional labelling.”
Make the sustainable choice the easy choice
However, Maartje Frederiks, an advisor in online food and retail, investor, and supervisory board member at Plus Retail, warned that changing habits of consumers is “definitely not easy.”
“I think it's also about inspiring customers to change habits to cook differently, to eat differently,” she said, noting that when people plan a meal, they usually start with a protein.
“That’s a bit old fashioned, right. So, you need to get used to a different way of looking at meal planning.”
Frederiks added that inspiring consumers to cook differently with new recipes that drive changes in behaviours should be seen as a major task of retailers.
“I don't think that consumers can do it on their own,” said Boone. “And I also agree that that labelling cannot do it on its own.”
“Make it easy for consumers to make the right choice,” he said. “So, in a catering organisation make the standard meal a sustainability meal. They can still choose the other one, but a lot of consumers will just select the one that is the easiest choice.”
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