Consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable food and drink products. But just how much does sustainability influence purchase decisions?
Today, sustainability ‘cracks’ consumer retention. Tomorrow…?
Food companies across the board have observed a shift in consumer demand. Whether shoppers vote with their wallets or not, they largely say they want environmentally friendly food.
According to recent research from Deloitte, consumers’ top five most important environmentally sustainable or ethical practices are: producing sustainable packaging and products; reducing waste in manufacturing process; committing to ethical working practices; reducing carbon footprint; and respect for human rights.
As these findings suggest, sustainability means different things to different people. “It’s hugely different for everyone. For some people it’s sourcing, for others it’s low emissions, for some it’s eating less meat, and for lots of people it’s packaging,” explained Sam Day, general manager at HelloFresh Group brand Green Chef at Future Food-Tech in London.
At the health-focused meal kit brand – which caters to diets including vegan, vegetarian, keto, and lower carb – Day has observed an uptick in customers demand for sustainability.
But the general manager is not convinced sustainability is what pushes consumers to buy products. It does play a role, however: Day suspects that while sustainability is not the ‘key driver’ – with consumers prioritising taste, price, and convenience – it does ‘drive retention’.
“Sustainability may not be what cracks the sale, but it is what cracks the retention. And for us, that’s massive.”
In the plant-based meat analogue category, Taylor Sokol, who heads up strategic partnerships at Impossible Foods, has similarly observed increased consumer interest in sustainability – particularly amongst younger consumers.
Gen Z – people born between 1995 and 2020 – already accounts for 40% of global consumers. “Seventy-five percent of their purchase behaviour is based on brands and products that have some sort of sustainability initiative,” Sokol told delegates at a Tastewise Talks event this week.
“This [should be] really critical when marketers, salespeople, and business leaders are building a story around their brand and [explaining] the crux of why they exist.”
At the same time, the strategics partnerships lead does not believe sustainability alone will move the needle on purchase intent for consumers. Not yet, at least: “[In a few] years down the road, I do truly believe that will change.”
In plant-based, sustainability is not ‘top of mind’
Leveraging artificial intelligence to analyse consumer trends suggests similar findings: that sustainability is important to the consumer, but not ‘top of mind’ when making purchasing decisions.
Israeli start-up Tastewise analyses restaurant and delivery menus, social media interactions, and home recipes online to help food and beverage innovators find opportunities in the market.
According to Tastewise co-founder and CEO Alon Chen, price and taste are key drivers for consumers when decided which products to buy. How a brand makes a consumer feel is also relevant (whether it is perceived to have an impact on social status, for example), as is availability and nutrition.
“When you look at sustainability more specifically… it’s important to understand that top of mind for the consumer is not to eat sustainably. Sustainability is something that needs to be there, alongside other things they consider [important].”
In plant-based consumption, for example, the biggest consideration for consumers is health, he told delegates during the Tastewise Talks event. “It’s five times more [important] than animal welfare and sustainability combined.”
Across ‘so many categories’, Tastewise has observed that consumers ‘don’t care enough’ about sustainability to change their purchase behaviour.
For the best outcome, ‘layer on’ sustainability to taste and nutrition
Does that mean businesses should not prioritise sustainability? Of course, they should, but if sustainability is a company’s primary value proposition, they might struggle to win over consumers.
This is the perspective of Rachel Konrad, Chief Brand Officer at investment foundry The Production Board, who has previously worked as Director of Communications at Tesla and Chief Communications Officer at Impossible Foods.
“If your no. 1 value proposition to consumers is sustainability, no offence, but you’re screwed,” she told delegates at Future Food-Tech last month.
Electric vehicle major Tesla, where Konrad worked for close to three years, today accounts for 60-80% of the US electric car market. Tesla’s overall car market share in the US, China, and Europe combined is around 2.1%. That can’t be solely attributed to its sustainability credentials, we were told, but it does play a role in consumer loyalty.
“Tesla won the market because it was faster than a Lamborghini, it had a better user interface, it’s the safest car ever tested [according to] consumer reports, it has the best stereo…
“The fact that it is also able to be powered completely by solar panels off your roof, that is what gets people to be a fan for life.”
Essentially, if Tesla weren’t faster, better, or safer, Konrad doesn’t believe it would have achieved such a significant market share.
The same is true for Impossible Foods, the company’s ex chief communications officer suggested. While working at the company, Konrad believed consumer motivation to purchase Impossible’s plant-based meat analogues could be largely attributed to taste and nutrition.
“If you don’t have nutritious and delicious, you don’t even get to play at the table. But if you have that, and then you layer on sustainability, that is a magic combination.”