What 2021’s conscious consumer really wants

09 March 2021, 09:18 AM
  • Demand for sustainable, ethical food and drink is only going up. We explore how retailers can boost their eco-credentials
What 2021’s conscious consumer really wants

A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, one thing is clear: the last 12 months have reshaped the food industry. While some trends have shifted completely, others have accelerated rapidly in the new environment.

One movement that Covid-19 has ensured is here to stay is sustainability. Increasingly, consumers are seeking out brands and retailers that align with their ethics by taking a stance on issues like climate change, pollution and food waste. “All the research since Covid-19 started shows that the majority of consumers are still, and sometimes more, interested in environmental action from the businesses they support,” says Catherine Conway of Unpackaged, a zero waste specialist.

Indeed, consumers are “hungry for leadership and demonstrable change on environmental issues, ethical business practices, public health and other important causes,” according to Mintel’s Food and Drink Report 2030, which predicts the trends that will influence the sector over the next decade. “The companies that will win in the next 10 years will be those that fuel the new era of conscious consumption,” writes Jenny Zegler, associate director of Mintel Food & Drink.

With a newfound desire for sustainable and ethically produced food and drink, successful fine food independents must target the demands of the new conscious consumers by taking action in their own shops.

The plastic problem

Even before Covid-19 hit, single-use plastics were public enemy number one. “Plastic has already swung back from the ‘great protector’ to the ‘great pollutant’ in many people’s eyes, and this will continue,” explains Sian Sutherland of A Plastic Planet. Sian predicts that our growing focus on health, will mean emerging science around the impact of plastic on human health will be “another big accelerant of plastic reduction”.

“From our groceries to our clothing, our carpets, wall paint and skincare – our awareness of the omnipresence of plastic will rapidly increase,” Sian says. Indeed, a study by Trivium Packaging discovered that nearly three-quarters of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging.

Research published by The Telegraph found that searches for “plastic-free shops near me” have grown by a staggering 1,774,900% over the past three years, proving that the zero-waste shop, once a fringe concept, is becoming more mainstream. “This is no longer a niche distribution model, and we will see more boutique stores adopt refill solutions in a very aspirational, premium way,” Sian adds.

Large retailers are seeking to cash in on this trend, with a number of the multiples trialling refill concepts in their stores, but a recent report by Greenpeace found nearly 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging passed through major retailers’ tills in 2019. Independents have a distinct advantage when it comes to the cutting-edge of the zero-waste movement. “Home delivery is here to stay and offers great opportunity for local independents to build loyalty with their customers – the electric refill float coming to your street so you can just pop out and fill up your jars and bottles is an easy, visible and highly marketable concept that no big supermarket would ever emulate,” Sian explains.

“In the mainstream consumers’ eyes, the zero waste movement has barely begun,” adds Catherine. “Now that there’s an official zero waste market, many producers and suppliers are investing in it, which will lead to a better offer for both retailers and their customers.”

While services such as UnpackagedAT’s refill units make it easier for retailers to implement zero-waste stations in their stores, shops don’t have to offer bulk products to improve their position on plastics. Catherine suggests taking an audit to find out where your plastic weak points are: “Work out where most of your single-use plastic comes from and start tackling that, one category at a time as you embed a new way of selling.”

Whatever you do, just get started, Catherine says. “It’s no good just talking about it, independent retailers need to offer alternatives to single-use plastic to their customers. Whether it’s through refill sections, milk dispensers, selling more produce as loose or rewarding customers who bring their own containers, there are plenty of solutions out there,” she adds. Beneficial changes can also happen outside your four walls. Sian urges store owners to push their wholesalers to supply not just the primary, but also the secondary and tertiary packaging as plastic free.

Sustainable stocking

Beyond packaging, retailers must also take a critical eye to the sustainability of the products on their shelves. Demand for locally sourced and ethically produced food and drink is certainly there: In its Food and Drink Report 2021, Waitrose noted that sales of its organic range were up 13% in total amid the pandemic, while sales of organic chickens were up a whopping 42%.

“Recently there has definitely been a shift in mentality, and people, especially in the Millennial generation, are now questioning where products come from and expecting a certain level of transparency,” explains Jude Allen, commercial sales coordinator at Traidcraft, the group that helped to kickstart the fair trade movement. “I think that the group of people who buy fair trade products and ethical products generally is growing.” Throughout Covid-19, Jude says Traidcraft saw a large uptake in customers – in part, possibly, because as an online store it was an easy and safe shopping option, but also likely because of the rising demand for ethical products.

When it comes to stocking more sustainable food and drink, independent retailers have a good opportunity to beat the multiples thanks to their shorter supply chains and their focus on innovative, speciality brands. Take food waste, for example. The world has a huge food waste problem: around a third of the food produced for human consumption every year becomes lost or wasted, according to the UN Environment Programme. But savvy businesses have found ways to make the most of this surplus of food by upcycling it into innovative products.

From Toast Ale’s beer made with would-be wasted bread to Dash Water’s innovative use of wonky veg to Olam Coffee, which has made a range of superfruit products from the skin of the coffee cherry fruit, a common by-product of the coffee industry, small brands are finding novel ways to reduce food waste. And it’s a booming industry: one study by Future Market Insights put the total value of food waste at $46.7bn in 2019.

“Making the best use of gluts, wonkies and the otherwise unloved produce is our reason for being,” explains Becky Vale, marketing director at Tracklements. “It is after all, the premise behind all preserving, and a long-standing British tradition.” By sourcing unloved produce locally, Tracklements also seeks to reduce food miles. “We have a buy first local, then regional, national and international policy, and we don’t care what it looks like as long as it tastes great.”

Reducing food waste is yet another area where independents can shine. “While big retailers may have the resources to measure waste in their supply chains (even if many don’t), smaller retailers are in a better position to work collaboratively with their suppliers to avoid glitches that may cause waste and to market products to their customers when a glut means there’s a risk of large quantities going to waste,” explains Carina Millstone, executive director of Feedback, a charity looking to revamp the food system.

“Small retailers are also much better able to respond to local need, as we’ve seen during the Covid pandemic,” Carina says. “From our perspective, the future of the sustainable food system is much smaller and more local, with community-rooted businesses which help keep value in the region, and respond to demand more holistically.”

Transparency and traceability

Today’s conscious consumer wants to shop without adding to the single-use plastics problem. They’re seeking local produce with fewer travel miles, and they want to support brands that are working hard to solve the biggest issues facing the food sector – and the world. But none of this is possible without transparency.

Transparency around where food comes from, how it is processed, and what it costs to make have become significant issues that retailers must address. “I think the message of how food is produced is very, very lost, usually because there are so many steps between the field and the fork,” explains Glen Burrows, marketing director of The Ethical Butcher. “The simpler the food, the easier it is to maintain that level of transparency.” The Ethical Butcher aims to make it easy for consumers to source ethical meat by selling only products that are produced through regenerative agriculture.

While certifications and labels help to fight against the greenwashing of food products, technology also offers a new approach. “Every piece of meat we sell has a QR code on it that links back to the farm it came from, and people can watch a film about the ethics of the farmer involved,” Glen explains.

While transparency is vitally important to any business today, it comes in many forms. It can be as in-depth as Traidcraft’s ‘Transparent’ coffee, which broke new ground by publishing on the front of the pack exactly how much farmers were paid for their beans, as well as how much of the price goes into shipping, roasting and packing and how much profit Traidcraft makes – or as simple as communicating the provenance of your shop’s products to your customers. “It’s about telling a story, and retailers should be doing that across all their channels,” Catherine says. “If you have a clear internal plan of what you’re trying to do to make your business more sustainable, then communicate that honestly – tell your customers what you’ve achieved, what you’ve struggled with and they’ll come on the journey with you, which is what it’s all about.”

Retail insight: the power of local

Julia Kirby-Smith, director of North-London-based local food shop Fridge of Plenty

“We all have fantastic food producers on our doorsteps, wherever you live in the UK, and we need to support them. Many artisan producers were previously selling into restaurants and hotels, and they’ve had a really tough time. By stocking local products, retailers can help to build and shape strong regional food economies that are more diverse and more resilient – and that in turn will help to support great craftsmanship and ongoing innovation in British food.

“Sourcing locally also allows you to find unique products from your own area that customers won’t find anywhere else, which gives you something really special to offer. It also means you have a direct relationship with the people making the products you stock – you can get things delivered at short notice or on the day if needed, you can fix any problems very quickly, and you can even ask for smaller minimum order quantities when you’re starting out, or bespoke orders to fit your clientele. It’s also more sustainable. If you’re sourcing locally and seasonally you have much lower food miles, and often suppliers will pick or produce to order so there’s less food waste.”

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