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From COP26 to Netflix’s Seaspiracy, sustainability has made top headlines recently – and it’s leading to changes in consumer behaviour and consumption. That said, being ‘eco aware’ is certainly not a new trend. Indeed, many in the industry have noticed a gradual shift in the way people shop. With an increasing awareness of the impact our purchases have on the planet and other people comes a rise in conscious consumers hoping to make a difference through more considered purchases. But what does this mean for the fine food sector?
According to Matthew Rymer, managing director of Happerley, the movement to drive provenance, honesty and transparency across food and drink supply chains, a conscious consumer essentially refers to a savvy shopper who “thinks about what they are buying, where it has come from and the implications, from farm to fork, of that buying decision”.
“Consumers are becoming more savvy,” Matthew says. “They’re beginning to understand that, for example, a product labelled ‘local strawberry jam’ might not in fact contain local strawberries but pulp shipped from China.”
While many consumers are now familiar with certified labels such as The Lion Mark, Red Tractor, Fairtrade and Soil Association, the conscious consumer wants to take things further.
“Although these are valuable schemes and provide assurance on their own merits,” Matthew says, “they don’t go far enough in giving consumers the information that they are now demanding. Assurance over process is not the same as authenticity of supply or production. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, what is in it and have the assurance that, if they are paying a premium, they are getting what they think they are getting!”
Whether they’re looking for organic produce, meat alternatives or zero-waste goods, it’s safe to say the conscious consumer actively goes beyond the average shopper before making a purchase, as Louisa Ziane, chief operating officer at Toast Ale, explains: “People are increasingly making purchasing decisions that reflect a desire to take personal action. They may not be ready to make major changes, and so are looking for brands that meet their needs and have a positive impact. They will spend time researching and trialling, engage with the brand on social media, and pay more if the product tastes good and does good.”
“This has been a slow, growing movement for many years,” Louisa adds, “with surges following key moments, including the Blue Planet effect that shifted consciousness about plastic, significant investment in plant-based food companies, and most recently COP26 hosted in the UK. It’s a combination of moments like these, the popularity of sharing sustainable consumption behaviour content on social media, and the increase in choices as brands big and small have responded that is driving increasingly conscious purchase decisions.”
USPs like provenance, short supply chains and ethical processes are already at the heart of the fine food industry, meaning indies are well placed to capitalise on the rise of conscious consumerism. And with 62% of consumers taking a brand’s eco-credentials into consideration when choosing which food and drink products to buy, according to a 2021 report by Hearts & Science, it’s certainly worth considering how you can tap into this market segment.
Being independent automatically allows for greater flexibility. As Louisa explains, it gives brands the opportunity to share data and knowledge with others to help meet consumer expectations while also demanding more change from within the industry.
“Toast has been a driving force in the beer industry to raise public awareness of issues such as food waste and demonstrate practical actions everyone can take, collaborating with bakery suppliers, other breweries and fellow B Corp food brands,” Louisa explains. “Collaboration means we can learn from each other and improve at a faster pace – in the climate crisis, sustainability shouldn’t be a USP. That might mean sharing data and knowledge on carbon footprints, partnering to create innovative circular economy products, or jointly campaigning for policy change or regulation such as making food waste reporting mandatory.”
This independence is also what Matthew says will allow for the fine food industry to drive further change: “The fine food sector is leading the way in terms of honesty and transparency, and consumers are actively seeking out retailers they can trust,” he says. “But there is much more that should be done to enable consumers to access the information that they want at the point of purchase. Because the sector is driven by independents who can make swift decisions and take action on supply chains without long decision trees, the sector is able to take a clear lead.”
With so many companies competing for the attention of shoppers today, how can you fine tune your branding and messaging to attract conscious consumers without alienating others? First of all, it’s important to consider your target audience, keeping in mind that conscious consumers are no longer a standalone, niche group, as Mark Jones and Ana Martins, co-founders of online marketplace Pantree, explain: “Almost every customer wants to make sustainable choices, if they can do so without having to make significant compromises on convenience, price or quality. Practices that would previously have been targeted to niche audiences, such as eco-packaging or carbon neutral delivery, are increasingly a standard expectation. The pool of consumers being alienated by conscious or ethically focused messaging is shrinking rapidly.
“That said,” Mark and Ana continue, “speciality foods, artisanal vendors and products or brands that place priority on sustainable practices can have the association of higher price points and less inclusiveness. Therefore, it is essential to demonstrate the value and accessibility of ‘shopping small’. At Pantree, over 70% of the products are £20 or less, and thanks to our unique fulfilment model, shoppers can buy from as many small sellers as they want, all with one low shipping fee and a 48-hour delivery turnaround, proving that price, convenience and indie retailers can coexist.”
As a brand, it can be difficult knowing where to start and there are certainly no easy fixes, as Rich Ford, strategy director at Sherlock Studio, a branding, design and copy studio, explains. But when it comes to reducing our impact, it’s certainly worth the consideration: “It’s easy to switch to biodegradable packaging, but that doesn’t fix the problem if people don’t have a compost heap or if the ink is not planet-friendly; it still ends up in landfill. Plastic has been demonised, and in many ways it’s a terrible thing. But reusable plastic can be less damaging for the environment than some alternatives. So, always consider the best all-round solution before making a change.”
There’s no denying that sustainability is making its way up people’s list of priorities. According to research from Kantar, 62% of the British population will make up what it bills as ‘Eco Actives’ by 2030 – that means we’re likely to see an even bigger rise in the number of shoppers who take actions to reduce their impact and increase their awareness. With Eco Actives already worth £37bn to the British grocery market, it’s safe to say conscious consumerism is here to stay.
“There is a real opportunity for buyers to be more discerning, balancing consumer demands and the need to make a profit with real supply chain traceability and authentic provenance,” Matthew says. “More widespread adoption of supply chain validation, like Happerley Transparent, will drive consumer understanding and lead to a shift in buying patterns.”
Naturally, as the sector grows, so too will competition; and when it comes to the fine food sector, healthy competition could lead to more innovation and accessibility. “I hope there’ll be a race to the top amongst businesses, meaning the environment and social impact of products continues to improve,” Louisa says. “The fine food sector is likely to continue as the gold standard, but ethical, regenerative food staples must become mainstream and affordable to everyone.”