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The sustainability movement has proven an unstoppable force in the food and drink industry. But this year, even amidst the clamour for green credentials and sustainable innovations, tough economic conditions are forcing independent retailers to weigh up the value of environmentally friendly food and drink. “Every business owner is having to make tough decisions at the moment,” says Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the campaign organisation A Plastic Planet.
Yet in 2023, she says it’s more important than ever for indies to double down on their sustainable values. “Despite the choppy economic waters, I truly believe that stepping back from sustainability is not only detrimental to our environment but also an irresponsible business move,” Sian warns. “With a growing percentage of consumers crying out for sustainable products, it would be ill-advised to revert to a stagnant business model which ring-fences the consumers of the future.”
The numbers back up her claims. Over half (53%) of consumers actively seek out companies and brands that offer ways to offset their impact on the environment, while 51% are prepared to invest time and money to support companies that try to do good, according to Kantar’s research. Similarly, a survey by Cleanhub, which helps brands cut down on plastic, found that a third of consumers worldwide are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.
“If we take our foot off the pedal now, we risk not meeting the targets we set ourselves,” says Heather Morris, co-founder of food start-up specialists SH Foodie. So how can retailers ensure they’re hitting the sustainable brief in 2023? We gathered advice from sustainability experts and food and drink industry leaders to understand the key trends that will help retailers cash in on the sustainable pound this year.
With customers becoming more price-conscious, it’s important for retailers to look out for innovations that move the needle – particularly those that offer shoppers that chance for an easy win. “Sustainability innovators must ensure that their products present consumers with a frictionless choice to make change intuitive and easy,” Heather says. “Innovators need to overcome initial instinctive concerns to make it easier for the purchaser to reap the long-term rewards for themselves and the planet.”
Brands that repurpose by-products of the food and drink industry, for example, present customers with a clear narrative to get behind. “Circularity is the focus of an increasing number of emerging brands – upcycling, reusing ‘waste’ products or operating in more of a closed loop. The most elegant examples seem to be coming from the drinks industry, like Black Cow Vodka and East London Liquor Company,” says Jason Gibb, founder of Bread & Jam, which is running a Future Summit to help food and drink businesses become more sustainable.
Heather that this trend will be on the rise in 2023. “Over the coming months, I predict there will be more companies looking at how so-called ‘waste’ materials can be put to good use, which can only be a good thing for all of us,” she says. The upcycling of by-products from non-dairy milk production, such as oat, soy and almond pulp, also ranked in Whole Foods Market’s top 10 trends forecast for 2023.
But sustainability and waste-reduction in the food and drink arena take many forms. One item that’s perennially in the spotlight is single-use plastics. “The impact of single-use plastics in the beverage industry is well documented, as are the proposals and plans to reduce usage,” Heather says. “It’s obviously not a simple problem to resolve, which requires more cooperation and joined up thinking between countries and companies.”
Indeed, the single-use plastics fight has been taken to Downing Street. Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey announced a ban on a range of takeaway products in England, including plastic plates, trays, cutlery and polystyrene cups and food containers. The ban has been wildly popular with the public: more than 95% of those who responded to the consultation were in favour.
Many independent retailers are already shifting away from plastic packaging. Eversfield Organic’s Mitch Thorne says sustainable packaging has “gained serious traction in recent years”. The retailer itself uses cardboard boxes made from recycled pulp, as well as compostable trays and paper bags. “The devastating effects of single-use packaging are well documented and it’s positive to see many companies taking responsibility and either minimising or completely eliminating this threat to the environment,” Mitch says.
Redefining ‘sustainable’ for 2023
While some sustainable swaps will take investment in new technologies or leaps of faith in trending products, independent retailers can also cash in on the sustainable pound by looking to the past. “We haven’t always been shackled to a throwaway culture of consumerism,” Sian says. “We used to put bottles outside our front door for the milkman. Our food didn’t used to be wrapped up in a plastic cocoon.”
Simplicity is making a comeback. At a time when the prevalence of greenwashing can sow seeds of doubt in consumers’ minds about brands’ sustainability claims, presenting a tangible alternative can be extremely impactful.
For fine food brands, sustainability is often baked into the business. Take the artisanal Italian food brand Seggiano. “Our company was founded on our love for Italian food, a passion for a holistic approach to wellbeing and sustainable agriculture,” says co-founder Peri Eagleton. “Our company’s ethics reflect our way of life, as opposed to an adopted policy. We work with specialist producers who share this passion and use quality ingredients and production methods that preserve the nutritional integrity of food and respect sustainable agricultural practice.”
This focus on quality will be essential in 2023 as bigger brands sacrifice the best ingredients or production methods for a better margin. “As prices have risen sector-wide, mainstream commercial food brands have tended to make compromises on quality and sustainability to help maintain margins,” says Peri.
“But with the concerned consumer the arbiter of choice here, it is companies that remain true to their ethics that will reign supreme – as they continue to scrutinise the sustainability, integrity, provenance and traceability of ingredients, production methods, packaging, and trading practices behind every product on the shelf.”
Whole Foods Market has acknowledged the ‘back to basics’ trend with a surprising entry in its 2023 trends list: the humble date. Following a viral craze on TikTok in 2022, dates are now popping up in recipes and on retailers’ shelves, but as a sweet treat they date back to ancient Mesopotamia. “Now, thousands of years later, the dehydrated fruit often referred to as ‘nature’s candy’ is having a major renaissance as a sweetener – not only for at-home bakers, but also in the form of pastes and syrups, and hidden in everything from ketchup to overnight oats,” Whole Foods’ Trends Council states.
The redefining of sustainability in 2023 also extends to the savings produced for consumers – whether that is saving water, saving wonky fruit and veg from the bin, or even saving energy for the home cook. Indies can think creatively about the products they’re stocking as consumers crave home-cooked meals that use less energy.
“Mintel’s cooking in the home report identifies that home cooks’ interest in learning new skills offers opportunities for sustainable products,” Heather says. Think meal kits for the slow cooker or air fryer or simple, flavour-packed ingredients like cooking sauces.