Just like businesses are schooled to avoid stranded assets and compliance costs, consumers are increasingly taking the emotion out of sustainability and thinking about it more and more in practical terms, he told FoodNavigator’s recent Climate Smart Food digital summit. Consumers, he said: “are seeking to become resilient to disruption and are becoming more resource-focussed when it comes to sustainability.”
This means opportunities for products that can offer consumers greater resource efficiency, explained the author of Mintel’s annual Global Outlook on Sustainability report. But the vocabulary we are using in marketing needs to change. Cope demanded death to the term ‘environmentally friendly’. “It's not a term we can use anymore,” he said. “We are moving to an era where lexicons have to be about reduced impact, or about mitigation or efficiency rather than claiming your product can actually benefit the environment.”
For best-in-class product innovation, we can look to Barilla’s ‘passive cooking’ initiative inviting consumers to cook their pasta for only two minutes before turning off the hob, putting a lid on the cooking pan and waiting a few minutes more for the steam to finish cooking the pasta.
Whilst likely enraging food traditionalists, the method reduces carbon emissions by up to 80%, Barilla claims. But the genius of this campaign, according to Cope, is that it saves consumers 80% of their energy bills. “It crucially ties the two things together - the personal benefit with the planetary benefit.”
Rising prices, shortages and extreme weather events have shifted sustainability
Making sustainability the differentiator in products this way is vital today, Cope argued. Rising prices, shortages and extreme weather events have shifted sustainability from a “premium nice to have” to an issue impacting on health and wallets. This resource-focused re-prioritisation has consequently seen food and water shortages overtake plastic pollution as leading concerns.
“Consumers have just undergone a sort of crash course at sustainability school. The last few years they have experienced price rises, supply chain disruption, threats to their health and increasing legislation from governments.”
Shoppers have consequently learned that “everything is interconnected” in the world of environmental sustainability and that “inaction against climate change” leaves businesses and governments and consumers all exposed to myriad threats including supply chain disruption and rising costs.
And these are sadly things that are not set to go away. Consumers are experiencing climate change directly. In March 2023 the Catalan government announced the closure of the Sau Reservoir, since less than 6% of its water remained. Cope’s ‘conservative’ estimate is that 20,000 people died in France, Germany and Spain in this year’s heatwaves. The frequency of extreme weather events is going to increase too. “The war in Ukraine is a conflict-induced preview of the supply chain shortages to come due to climate change,” he warned.
The onus on companies and product development, therefore, is to make consumers feel they are contributing to “a wider positive movement”. And despite the challenges, over 50% of consumers are still telling Mintel they believe they can make a positive difference by what they can chose to do and what they choose to buy. “That's what creates an opportunity for your business,” revealed Cope. Even if people can't afford to buy green premiums right now, companies have a chance to build trust and attract loyal consumers looking to them for “protection and solutions”.
But they must be realistic about the claims they make and use communication metrics that put things in context and ways consumers can understand, stressed Cope. For example, 66% of consumers have told Mintel they prefer for companies to reduce their own carbon emissions rather than use carbon offsetting schemes, which are at the heart of many food and drink company's assertions about achieving carbon neutrality.
Cope’s advice to food and drink companies therefore is to stress ‘efficiency’ or the idea of achieving more with less resources. “Anything that isn't about efficiency is really risking greenwashing,” he said, adding: “I think an alternative word for sustainability is efficiency as far as consumers are concerned.”
Also telling in Mintel’s stats is that 65% of consumers agree that food produced from leftover ingredients can have a high positive impact. The same proportion are also warm to the idea of crops which can be genetically modified to withstands pests and extreme temperatures. “That's something beyond regulatory possibilities at the moment but it shows consumers are open to these kind of initiatives,” Cope said.
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