Promoting plant-based: Environmental concerns don’t motivate people to cut back on meat

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Environment doesn't top the list of why German shoppers are cutting back on meat consumption / Pic: GettyImages-vaaseenaa
Environment doesn't top the list of why German shoppers are cutting back on meat consumption / Pic: GettyImages-vaaseenaa

Related tags plant-based environmental claims eco claims Animal welfare Health

Environmental concerns don’t motivate consumers to replace meat products with plant-based alternatives, new research suggests. So, what does prompt people to make the swap?

For all the back-and-forth about whether meat substitutes are fool’s gold failing to live up to their initial hype as big name brands like Beyond Meat announce cutbacks in the US, it is clear that sales of meat substitutes in Europe are continuing to rise. Indeed, according to Nielsen data, the European plant-based food sector has grown by 49% in the three years to 2021, reaching a total sales value of €3.6 billion.

“We see the tremendous growth of plant-based food in Europe over the last few years reflected in numbers,”​ stressed Dr Kai-Brit Bechtold, Senior Consumer Research Scientist at ProVeg International. According to Dr Bechtold, the ‘huge increase in sales of plant-based food’ offers a ‘green light to the food industry in terms of pursuing more plant-based options’.

To understand how to meet this need, manufacturers need to understand what motivates consumers to make the switch to plant-based and cut back on meat and dairy consumption. And this is what German researchers at the Institute of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Bonn set out to understand.

The German plant-based meat sector has grown by 226%, Nielsen data demonstrates, representing a bright spot for the European plant-based sector and reaching a total sales value of €181 million. What is driving this growth? "We wanted to know why consumers choose these alternatives,"​ explained Jeanette Klink-Lehmann, who is doing her doctorate at the Institute in the department of Prof. Dr. Monika Hartmann.

Klink-Lehmann and Hartmann, together with their colleague Nick Marcus, surveyed 441 men and women from all over Germany for the analysis. The participants were asked, for example, to state how much they care about their health, whether they think humanity is heading for an ecological crisis and whether animal husbandry in agriculture should be ethically questioned. They also indicated their attitude toward meat substitutes and their intention to consume them regularly in the future.

Animal welfare and health messages motivate consumption

"We have now examined the statistical relationships between these responses based on an extension of a recognised behavioural model,"​ explained Marcus.

The researchers came across what they described as a ‘surprising’ result. Respondents who expressed greater concern for the environment didn’t correlate with a ‘better rating’ of meat substitutes or a greater intention to purchase them. "We had expected that ecological aspects would also play a role in the intention to consume meat alternatives,"​ Marcus explained. "However, that has not been confirmed."

The researchers said they can only speculate about the reasons behind this discrepancy between the participants' environmental concerns and their behavioural intention. And there are some limitations to the research, they noted. For example, the survey data already dates from 2017 - a time when the "Fridays for Future" movement did not yet exist. "Since then, the issue of the environment has been much more prominent on the agenda,"​ Klink-Lehmann emphasized. "As a result, more people are probably aware of the potentially negative environmental effects of meat consumption today than they were five years ago."

So, what does motivate shoppers to cut back on animal-based proteins? The survey found animal welfare concerns played a ‘major role’ in the respondents' consumption decisions. People who view factory farming critically, (unsurprisingly) have a more positive attitude toward plant-based sausages and veggie burgers on average. This attitude, in turn, has a beneficial effect on the intention to use these alternatives in the future.

Meanwhile, a ‘pronounced’ health consciousness is also associated with a greater willingness to consume meat substitutes. While the attitudes of friends and close relatives toward meat substitutes has a significant influence over buying intent.

Marketing and innovation to reflect key concerns

Marcus, Klink-Lehmann and Hartmann recommend that better communication of the ecological advantages of meat alternatives could help increase acceptance among German shoppers.

In addition, they said, the industry should leverage innovation to meet consumer interest in plant-based products that are healthy. “The industry should pay attention to a healthy and balanced composition in the manufacture of its products,”​ they recommended.

Moreover, food makers should ensure where meat alternatives do contain animal-based ingredients they need to remain sensitive to consumer concerns over animal welfare. “Where animal-based foods such as eggs are used in meat substitutes, they should come from farms that pay attention to good animal husbandry,”​ they advised.

"Animal welfare and health are obviously very important to consumers,"​ said Klink-Lehmann. "So manufacturers would do well to take these aspects into account and then market their foods accordingly."

‘Exploring factors determining German consumers’ intention to eat meat alternatives'
Food Quality and Preference
Authors: Marcus, N., Klink-Lehmann, J. und Hartmann, M.

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