Marketers are struggling to communicate on climate

Consumers are clueless about terms like net-zero and regenerative agriculture, so it’s no surprise comms teams are still prioritising packaging initiatives. By David Burrows.

“The customer takes more clues about your sustainability initiatives from your packaging than they do about anything else.” That comment, from the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Juliane Caillouette Noble during a chat we had earlier this year for Footprint’s foodservice packaging report, has been going around in my head of late. Is she right? And if so, what does it mean for food companies?

Global statistics recently published by Mintel suggest climate change remains the top concern – 46% of people chose it in their top three environmental worries. Air quality comes second (36%), followed by plastic pollution (33%). The latter has ebbed slightly in the past 12 months (from 36%) but that hasn’t stopped campaign groups ramping up their efforts to hold food companies’ feet to the fire; nor has it prevented industry groups lobbying against looming regulations.

Still, climate is the priority – which most would agree makes sense. But the problem brands have is communicating what they’re doing. A carbon label suggests something’s going on but a sprinkling of them on products or café menus means very little. A commitment to net-zero also sounds good, so too a focus on regenerative agriculture – but understanding of these terms is limited.

Net-zero know-how

COP26, held in Glasgow at the end of last year, shot the term net-zero into the headlines as brands gorged on the positive PR from making promises that needn’t be kept until 30 years hence. By spring 2022 only one in 10 Brits hadn’t heard of the term, according to the government’s most recent public attitudes tracker. But despite all the coverage the percentage of people knowing a little or hardly anything about net-zero hardly budged (from 42% in spring 2021 to 41% in spring 2022).

Regenerative agriculture is equally enchanting (consumers feel it’s positive) and confusing (they have no idea what’s behind it). Only 14% of Brits had heard of it, according to a survey by AHDB last year. A more recent poll by the International Food Information Council in the US found 66% would opt for a standard breakfast cereal rather than a more expensive one labelled ‘grown with regenerative agriculture’ (the fact there is no certification for such claims doesn’t help; whether there should be given the holistic nature of regenerative approaches will be hotly debated in coming months).

Yet ask people whether they’d pay more for plastic-free packaging and they can’t reach for their wallets quick enough. Almost three quarters (74%) said they were happy to pay a packaging premium, according to Boston Consulting Group research in 2020. Almost one in four of those would pay 10% more. That was before the cost of living crisis, of course – and we all know that what people say and what they actually do is often very different.

However, I can see no evidence that packaging will be knocked off its perch as the go-to sustainability message for brands. It’s so visible. What’s more, it’s so easy to play into consumers’ confusion, allowing companies to change little but look like they’re doing a lot. Think single-use material switches from plastic, say, to paper (which in some cases brands billed as green even when regulations required it), rather than a focus on reuse which totally disrupts the system but could bring far more benefits in terms of cost, carbon and resource savings.  

Living in the sustainability bubble it’s easy to think consumers understand that reuse wins or that diets have a considerable environmental impact, or that farming systems need a complete overhaul to protect soils and nature and reduce emissions. But from what I’ve seen they don’t – and that’s before you get into some of the nuance of these debates.

Confused and conned

Indeed, Tesco’s recently published report of its reusable packaging trial showed customers often view reusable packaging as equal in environmental impact to recyclable packaging. That, as we reported, is a problem in terms of resources (thanks in part to the terrible recycling rates of foodservice packaging). But it’s great for businesses that don’t want the initial operational headache of reusables. 

It’s the same with regenerative agriculture, where there’s also the real risk of some companies tinkering around the edges – in other words greenwashing. “I think the prospect of our food coming from a system that is healing and restorative is something people really want to hear,” Philip Loring, associate professor in food, policy and society at the University of Guelph, Canada, told me recently. “It’s easier said than done, however.”

Regulators are scrutinising closely what is being said and the claims being made. Some businesses have already been pulled up on their green claims relating to climate change. The green claims code notes that consumers have “difficulties” in understanding terms like net-zero. “Businesses should be clear what they are doing and how they are doing it,” the Competition and Markets Authority says. “They should include accurate information about whether (and the degree to which) they are actively reducing the carbon emissions created in the production of their products or delivery of their services or are offsetting emissions with carbon removal.”

Mintel says escalating activism, regulatory reaction and the sheer scale of the challenges ahead and solutions required have “educated global consumers enough to sniff out greenwashing campaigns and there’s no going back from that”. Some cons are easier to spot than others though.

Carbon neutral or net-zero sound good but the devil is very much in the detail. Deciphering who the laggards and the leaders are is tricky for climate experts so what hope do consumers have?

Companies will increasingly need to assert – and clearly communicate – the truly impactful actions they are taking to reduce emissions, rather than simply offset them or dip their toes into populist ‘plastic free’ campaigns, suggested Mintel senior trends consultant Richard Cope. But will they?

How do you communicate the ‘green’ topics that are contentious, confusing and complex? How do you create demand for products that are helping to change food systems – especially when in the short-term they could cost more and there is very little regulation forcing this shift? These are the big challenges facing brands. Marketers, however, like simplicity.

Trust in who?

Levels of trust in sustainability claims are low. GlobeScan research in 2021 showed that only 37% of people in the UK agree that ‘companies communicate honestly and truthfully about their social and environmental performance’. So 63% think they’re being conned. Even companies generally celebrated for their leadership within the industry like Oatly and Unilever have come under fire. Nestlé meanwhile has been roasted for its net-zero commitments and planning.

NGOs I have spoken to say they simply want to be critical friends to the companies they are critiquing on issues such as net-zero. It is indeed a balancing act for them – ripping apart the plans of those who are least publishing them certainly won’t encourage others to be equally transparent.

Indeed, the risk is that businesses that are doing good will be “scared off” or feel that the safest claims are the highly technical ones, which could struggle to engage consumers as something simple and meaningful, says GlobeScan associate director Pendragon Stuart. “We could lose momentum at just the moment we need it most,” he suggests.

Going forward, marketers who have been all too comfortable pitching packaging policies in a bid to ‘green’ their whole brand are in for a rude awakening. They will have to work even harder on blending the appeal of simplicity with the rigour of detail, says Stuart.

An ecolabel is perhaps the front-running silver bullet for doing just that – especially if it can span not just environmental but nutritional and social elements too. “Consumers actually have a right to know this stuff,” says Lise Colyer, founder of OmniAction which is trying to create such a label. Currently, she says, there is not one single product that delivers consumers’ right to full information about the impact that product had on the environment, on their health, on the welfare of others. What the label will invariably tell us though is whether the product is plastic-free, compostable or recyclable – and that just isn’t enough.

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