Consumers are actually buying into sustainable food: study

Polls that show the (vast) majority of consumers want to buy products that are better for the environment should be taken with a pinch of salt. Because when it comes to the crunch, they often don’t.

There are myriad reasons for this. Price, of course, is one. Quality is another. Indeed, some organic products remove the word ‘organic’ because of the perception that it’s too pricey and at times poorer quality.

At times, they are just confused. They just can’t tell if a product is sustainable. Or they don’t trust what they’re being told. Greenwashing has made a covid comeback, which is why most consumers look for third party certification or verification schemes for reassurance (though these are not often perfect and present eco-dilemmas: is animal welfare, say, more important than a fair price?).

There are hundreds of eco-labels but they are not on every product (and arguably the most important one, a carbon label, is on fewest – but perhaps not for long). I’ve heard some supermarkets say that 40% of their customers are quite willing to make changes to their buying habits but find it difficult. In restaurants and canteens there is often even less labelling. Are brands missing a trick here?

“What people say they do and what they actually do is often very different,” Streetbees client solutions director Maria Anthony explained at this week’s ‘How to build a sustainable brand’ conference, run by The Grocer. “It isn’t because they knowingly lie,” she continued, “it’s because you can’t know the true reasons behind a purchasing decision unless you address it at the moment of choice.”

Streetbees, which analyses how people behave “in the moment”, asked shoppers in 2019 whether sustainability was important to them: 75% said yes but only 4% referenced it unprompted at the point of purchase (the moment they engaged with a brand or product). That gap is unsurprising (and justifies reaching for that salt).

However, Streetbees repeated the research in 2020 and found the ‘say-do’ gap had shrunk: 65% said sustainability was important in their purchasing decisions and 9% mentioned it unprompted at point of purchase. Those referencing sustainability when prompted also increased from 20% to 24%.

Maybe the pandemic is nudging people to make more sustainable purchasing decisions. They need help though. And therein lies an opportunity for food businesses.

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