How to align your business with conscious consumers

16 June 2023, 13:38 PM
  • With mindful consumerism becoming more apparent than ever before, how can the fine food industry cater to demand? Two experts weigh in
How to align your business with conscious consumers

The idea of a business’s ‘mission’ is not a new one; nor is it a topic which focuses purely on a singular level of sustainability. For too long, naysayers have chalked this key issue up to the socks and sandals brigade demanding that energy and funds be funneled into ‘unnecessary’ causes, but now that the impact of unsustainable business is clear for everyone to see there has never been a more vital time to act – for the sake of people and prosperity, as well as the planet.

Amongst conscientious fine food and drink businesses and consumers, the proactivity around holistic sustainability is strong. No wonder the number of businesses within the sector that are now B Corp-registered – proven to be using business as a force for good – is growing.

“I think the B Corp is rapidly becoming the golden standard in terms of validating a company’s mission driven marketing claim, and in the next 12 months it’s going to be increasingly recognised and understood by the consumer,” says Jason Gibb, founder of Bread & Jam – a network which hosts events and training to support emerging and scaling food businesses – and host of May’s Future Summit – which saw mission-driven food and drink businesses group together to learn and collaborate. No wonder there are now over 1,300 B Corp-certified businesses in the UK alone.

Defining ‘mission-driven’
But what makes a business mission-driven? Amirah Jiwa, an independent social impact and sustainability consultant, defines it as: “A business that aims to make a positive impact in a specific social or environmental issue area, alongside making money.”

For Jason, today’s smart businesses are focused on securing a better future for us all. “A mission-driven business is one that wants to change the world for better. And they want their customers to be part of that change,” he begins. “The majority of the businesses that come into the Bread & Jam community are mission-driven to some extent. It may be that they are focused on their supply chain, their carbon footprint, or maybe they want to rid the world of plastic. Whatever their purpose, they do tend to better that brand with no mission as the belief in what they are doing gets them through the challenges of starting up a food business.”

While interest and passion might be high, it’s easier said than done to make a sizeable impact, says Amirah. “It requires meaningful investment — not necessarily of money, but of time, thought and energy,” she says.

“In the current economic environment this can be hard for brands to find. Coming up with the best way to communicate impact efforts is another challenge: it can be tricky to come up with messaging and campaigns that are clear and compelling while also capturing needed nuance (and complying with the Government’s recently introduced Green Claims Code).”

A bright future
Within the fine food orbit, there is an impressively large – and growing – proportion of people who are making proactive choices to make what they consume less damaging for the future of people and planet. This means that by toeing the line between a sustainable business model and the challenges today’s consumers are facing, independent fine food retailers, producers and beyond can appeal to both shoppers and their bottom line.

“Given a choice consumer want to do the right thing and will prefer something that is ethical and sustainable. But the key is that you give them a genuine, price-comparable choice – so for example the packaging-free products need to be the same price as the packaged product and the Fairtrade, sustainable coffee has to be at a similar price point to a premium coffee,” says Jason.

“Otherwise there is definitely an action intention gap on the part of the consumer – they’ll say they strongly believe in something, but when it’s time to put something in their basket they’ll base that on price.”

Amirah agrees. “Between the pandemic, extreme weather events happening with more regularity, and divisive politics, the future feels increasingly fraught. Consumers are looking for ways to make a difference, and purchasing from brands whose values align with their own often seems like one small, but accessible way to do that. Given two brands with similar products, one with an added social or environmental benefit and one without, why wouldn’t you choose the more impactful option?”

A challenging trade-off
While one would hope that every business approaches becoming mission-driven with an entirely holistic mindset, the fact is that any kind of solution to one problem will bring up a linked issue somewhere else down the line.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to any social or environmental issue — no perfect solution that has benefits all round,” explains Amirah. “For example, buy-one-give-one schemes could displace local entrepreneurship efforts while increasing access to an important good; switching to compostable packaging could reduce your impact as long as it doesn’t make it harder for consumers to correctly dispose of your packaging; and sourcing locally might reduce shipping emissions but it might also reduce the earning potential of communities in the Global South.”

A smart approach, making sure that you’re aware of both the positive and negative impacts of your decisions, is vital. “Almost all choices involve trade-offs and it’s important to be as aware of any potential negative effects of your efforts, as you are of the benefits. Understanding the full impacts — good and bad — of a choice will help you make informed impact decisions and avoid accidental greenwashing,” Amirah says.

The danger of greenwashing
“With so many companies large and small shouting about their missions, their ethics and their eco-credentials it can be nigh on impossible to distinguish the fakers from the bona fide,” says Jason. “Every time I see a business claim that a tree is planted for every item sold, beer drunk or internet search made I think to myself ‘where the hell are all of those trees?’ Surely we’d be drowning tree if it were true!”

With a disappointingly large number of businesses ‘greenwashing’ their work to make it appeal to conscious consumers, there is a lot to be said for consumers educating themselves – as well as Speciality Food readers, industry players and producers picking up the mantle – so that they are able to sort the fact from the fiction.

Thankfully, resources are available and there are bodies doing the work to provide clarity. “There are a lot of BS claims around carbon neutral, carbon negative and offsetting in the food and drink world, but the robust framework that the science-based targets (SBTs) give us are really helpful,” says Jason.

Eternal potential
The good news for businesses wanting to define their mission is that the boundaries are only defined by the work you want to do. “The ‘missions’ are endless,” explains Amirah.

“You can focus on issues that are relevant to your consumers, connected to the ingredients you source, affect the communities involved in your value chain, or have particular resonance amongst your employees.”

With such a wide scope for working for the good of people and the planet – attracting conscientious shoppers along the way – the future is an exciting place for mission-driven ventures.

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