How indies can break down the barrier to sustainability for consumers

26 April 2022, 12:09 PM
  • New research finds price is the biggest barrier to sustainability for consumers, so how can fine food retail combat this?
How indies can break down the barrier to sustainability for consumers

As evidenced by EIT Food’s latest Trust Report, three-quarters of British consumers agree that sustainability is one of the most important issues of our times and, as a result, want to shop more sustainably. Moreover, Quantilope found that half of the population are trying to include some sustainability practices into their shopping and are satisfied with their actions. 

However, with fast-rising inflation and the worst cost of living crisis facing the UK in a century on the horizon, the decision about which food brands and products to purchase is ultimately led by price for the vast majority (79%) of shoppers. This means that price is the biggest barrier to sustainability for British consumers, and independents that focus on localism could be in a prime position to break down the barrier. 

How can indies sell affordable sustainability?
As independent retailers often focus on local produce and buying smaller quantities of better-quality food, there is a big opportunity for affordable sustainability. Refill is a huge part of this, as it allows customers to only buy what they need, which can cut food costs.

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet champions normalising refill as a cost-effective and sustainable way to operate, explaining “Buying loose products - i.e., refill - enables you to buy exactly what you need, not what you are sold. This also helps with budgeting and reduces food waste – a double whammy benefit.

“The future of retailers will be to seriously commit to refill and prefill for their customers.  We need them to ‘normalise’ these new ways of selling, introducing reward schemes and new models of return, so the smaller outlets can follow suit. To change the market and to change shopper behaviour will take more than a few zero-waste stores on the high street and a trial refill in a major supermarket. 

“Look at France who are now committing to new laws that mandate larger supermarkets to dedicate 20% of floor space to refill/prefill.  Once this rolls out, we will see a dramatic shift in how people buy - with the same levels of convenience but without the plastic guilt.  I would encourage any smaller retailer to adopt these schemes as soon as possible to stay ahead of what is the inevitable answer to our overuse of natural resources.”

Food waste comes at a huge cost to both the customer and the environment. In fact, the consumable food we wasted in 2018 cost the UK a total of £19 billion – that’s £284 per person. While a customer may think it cheaper to buy a 1kg bag of carrots rather than the four individual ones they need for their recipe, when half the bag ends up in the bin because they didn’t need it, the consumer may as well have put their hard-earned cash in there too. Therefore, independents are in a prime position to champion buying ‘less but better’ and educate the public on why this is. 

As Ben Reynolds, deputy CEO of Sustain explains, “With the twin spectres of the cost of living and climate and nature crises many households will be looking for clever ways to cut costs whilst lowering their environmental impact. For many, this will include looking to waste less, buy local and choose less but better meat and dairy. As a nation that both overeats and over-wastes, there is a lot of mileage in buying less, and buying better – and independent retailers have a big role in encouraging this shift in behaviour, particularly in helping shoppers to buy meal ingredients over snacks and anything that rewards those that plan ahead over impulse shopping.”

Removing the cost barrier
Normalising and making sustainable options more accessible in independent retail can help to remove the cost barrier for consumers and move towards a greener food system. Sian argues, “We need to ensure sustainability is not about affordability. Everyone has a right to be able to make better choices. 

“And we need to stop thinking buying better is costing more. It is a totally false economy to consider plastic as the cheapest material when we pay so dearly for its impact in the long term. We urgently need stronger fiscal policies to rectify the fake price of plastic and create a fairer market for other systems and materials.”

Moreover, Megan Adams, founder of Re:store Refill in Hackney, argues that because the cost-of-living crisis is rising prices across the board, not just in smaller shops, independents can use this to their advantage. 

She explains, “It’s difficult for people to see beyond price when we are experiencing, as we are now, a time of significant price increases and inflation. However, all retailers will be increasing their prices for products that now have a higher cost, so it’s not just independent shops. The main ways we can try to remove the barrier of cost to sustainability are to communicate clearly that:

1. The perception that sustainability is always more expensive is not true - we stock some products that are actually cheaper than supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsburys.

2. Lifetime cost vs Upfront cost - for example a menstrual cup may seem expensive at £20 but that will last 10 years, whereas £20 will only get you about 5 months’ worth of tampons.

3. We should be consuming less - one way to save money is to buy less! If consumers buy a few, well made & sustainable items their overall spend will decrease.

According to Megan, indies can help shoppers to realise this by “sourcing great products that last, offering alternatives to the most traditionally wasteful products, not stocking brands that encourage waste, and offering advice and guidance to customers.”

Going the extra mile
With a nation of consumers actively trying to be more sustainable, independent retailers have a moral obligation to break down the cost barriers and provide this. 

However, Ben argues that “whilst customer support for independent retailers will definitely help to diversify supply and support smaller sustainable producers, the draw of supermarkets and online retail will be too much for many shoppers, so independent retailers will have to go the extra mile to market themselves and integrate themselves better into their local community.”

But it’s not all bad, he insists that “the plus side is that with more people working from home, many of the good practices of supporting local independent retail are likely to continue.”

By continuing to do what fine food retailers do best and shouting across the rooftops about it, they can break down the cost barriers to sustainability and help consumers do their part more affordably.

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