27 February 2023, 07:52 AM
  • Ethical credentials are becoming an important consideration for every business – particularly in the food and drink sector
How to take advantage of the sustainability opportunity

With a climate crisis threatening our planet, a vast number of consumers have been aspiring to more sustainable lifestyles, and Kantar predicts that 62% of the British population will be ‘Eco Actives’ by 2030. This means that brands and retailers that currently underperform with Eco Actives face a big loss as this shift in the population increases.

In fact, independent retailers are in a prime position to take advantage of the sustainability opportunity that this shift in consumer behaviour will bring.

Selling organic
Organic produce is only gaining popularity, and fine food retailers are well-placed to cash in on this sustainable seller.

In fact, according to the Soil Association, 2022 was another successful year for organic sales. Their Organic Market Report 2023 revealed that the UK’s organic market is now worth a record £3.1 billion, driven by 1.6% growth in sales in 2022, with shoppers spending almost £8.5 million on organic products every day in the UK.

But successfully selling organic produce comes down to the art of educating your customers in a non-patronising way that also resonates with people. 

According to Maddie Grinham, brand manager at Mr Organic, “We believe that retailers must cater their ranges to consumer demand, and look at how the products they stock can solve a particular problem their customers face. Since the pandemic, more and more of us are prioritising our health and looking for products that can deliver high-quality ingredients and reductions in salt, sugar and fat.

“There is also a marked shift away from big brands, with consumers gravitating to challenger brands that have much more of a focus on sustainability, ethics, and innovation. By understanding these needs, retailers can ensure they are stocking a good range of organic products that perfectly match their target consumer.”

Mitch Thorne, marketing executive at Eversfield Organic, recommends using the sense of community built by independent retail to your advantage. He explains, “It comes down to strengthening our ties in the local community. We’ve steadily built a loyal customer base by combining bespoke, personal service and quality organic produce.”

As he concluded, “By striving for a supreme customer experience, word of mouth has worked in our favour and helped our sales figures. Along with friendly reminders of the health, taste, and environmental benefits of organic, we believe this is why our independent outlets are thriving.”

Catering to plant-based demand
With the environmental impact of food and drink products a key consideration for shoppers, plant-based alternatives to high-emission meat and dairy products are growing in popularity.

In fact, a recent report from Mintel found that UK sales of meat-free products will be expected to be in excess of £1.1bn by 2024. With a growing number of consumers now looking to incorporate more plant-based alternatives into their diet, now is the time to cash in on this sustainable trend.

According to Ana Purcaroiu, senior consumer analyst at GlobalData, “People will increasingly base their choice of retailer on the availability of plant-based products, as GlobalData’s survey revealed that 21% of UK millennials claim that the availability of special dietary products is the most influential factor when deciding where to do their grocery shopping.”

While it might seem like a daunting task to add plant-based options to your counters or shelves, Emma Bowe, food director at Veganly Deli, explains that it can actually be a stress-free process. “A deli can start by scanning their current supplier catalogue and stocking some vegan cheese and meat products. If your distributor does not stock any, it’s time to find another that does – the vegan sector has been exploding since Covid 19. To be ahead of the game, you need to expand your offering.”

Championing regenerative
Regenerative agriculture is certainly having a moment. As the food and drink sector battles with sustainably feeding a growing population, fine food retail should take advantage of this shift towards nature-friendly farming.

Whether you run a farm shop stocking the produce from your own fields or just have a single biodynamic wine on your shelves, this emerging category has huge relevance to every fine food business.

In fact, independent fine food retailers are in a unique position to champion sustainable meat products from regenerative and pasture farms, highlighting the need for better-quality meat.

According to Richard Wheeldon, the National Trust’s senior national consultant on farming systems, “Being able to articulate the provenance of produce is really important. We’ve supported some farmers with gaining such accreditations as Pasture for Life, Freedom Food and Soil Association status. These recognised industry standards can be really useful to help with sales of produce.

“Telling a story as part of nature-friendly farming is really important; some of our tenants have great social media to showcase the good work they are doing day-to-day. The direct contact with the consumer creates a great connection to nature and highlights the benefits of the farm on the local environment.”

Passing those stories on to your own customers will bring regenerative methods the attention they deserve, but also highlight the wider wins for the environment and your community that your shop’s products represent.

Investing in refill
Despite the current cost-of-living crisis, there is a high agenda for sustainable living, and independent retailers are well-placed to invest in a zero-waste future. 

Sally Sneddon, commercial buying manager for Keelham Farm Shop, explains, “As disposable income is being squeezed, consumers are still looking to make ethical, sustainable choices through their grocery shopping. Consumers will be more demanding to ensure businesses are doing all they can to ensure zero waste is still on the agenda. The companies which are putting this high on their priorities list will be successful.”

In fact, according to Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged, “The direction of travel is that single-use plastic packaging will become increasingly more expensive to put on the market, which will help shift supply chain, retailer and consumer behaviour towards reuse and refill. Businesses that invest now will reap the benefits, but it is a long road ahead.”

Independent retailers should take advantage of this shift, and focus on making zero-waste options more convenient and easier to access. Although indies will never achieve hyper convenience, consumers are still dedicated to living more sustainably, and making that easier for them will attract more customers.