Food brands are uniquely placed to drive sustainable eating habits – here’s how
Once hailed as the solution to the carbon-heavy meat industry, the promising plant-based category is now struggling for growth amid the cost of living crisis. How can the food industry push consumers towards more sustainable eating habits?
Beyond the plant-based category, here are some of the ways food brands can drive sustainable eating habits / Unsplash
The food system is inextricable from human life and culture, but adapting to the demands of the 21st century is one of the most pressing challenges facing businesses, governments and society today.
From reducing plastic packaging to addressing unreliable traceability, promoting healthy eating to tackling food waste, brands are having to seriously reconsider the role they have to play in making sustainable eating habits appetizing to citizens.
Based on an analysis of global trends, M&C Saatchi Group’s global brand-led experience design business Re has identified seven key areas where brands have the opportunity to help shape behavior: sustainability, food diversity, innovation, transparency, cost, wellbeing and experimentation.
Here, we cherry-pick some of the most important trends for brands and marketers in the food sector to digest.
Sustainability across the supply chain
The production, processing and packaging of food currently generates a third of global greenhouse emissions. Therefore, there is a huge correlation between the production of food and the system’s impact on the environment.
In its report, Re identifies that companies and brands have numerous opportunities to combine technological innovation with consumer outreach to achieve sustainability across the food production chain; from farming to manufacturing and waste to packaging.
On the agricultural level, Helen Bass, global head of marketing and insights at ingredients giant Tate & Lyle, makes the case that investing in technology and education are two key ways that brands can improve their trajectories. “We need our younger generation to be doing science jobs, to be doing Stem jobs, to be seeing that as a really exciting career path,” she says. “Getting younger girls into Stem subjects can be quite challenging, but we need a lot of scientists for the future. We need people to feel inspired not just for the food industry, but industries in general.”
But the carbon footprint of food manufacturing and food waste remains significant, with the World Food Program confirming that if wasted food were a country it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.
Reducing food waste should be a business priority and is also a unique opportunity to raise awareness and connect consumers with more sustainable food practices, says Chris Spinelli, who heads up partnerships marketing at food-waste app Too Good To Go. “We want businesses to know that you can do good and still experience good business outcomes.”
Therefore, not only should leading food companies offer appealing and affordable food in ways that reduce waste, improve packaging and help move communities toward the circular economy, but brands and marketing have a key role to play in reinforcing the message that good food choices are also good climate choices.
Healthy diet, healthy environment
Brands need to encourage people to diversify their diets. As different foods have different carbon emissions, having greater variety in our diets can help drive down emissions as well as improve nutrition and promote biodiversity.
From eating more fruit and veg to paying attention to seasonality, as well as pushing plant-based alternatives to carbon-heavy meat, brands will need to work hard to encourage consumers to stray out of their comfort zone and try new things.
As Tim Newton, technical director at berry brand BerryWorld, explains: “Growing a crop outside of its natural seasonal window means its yield per area using conventional farming methods won’t be as good, which is why we work to maximize the local growing seasons with innovative techniques and we need to educate consumers on that. We have to change the way we think about the produce we consume and understand the importance of eating seasonally where we can, moving towards the most sustainable and carbon-friendly sources outside of those local seasons to keep healthy produce available year-round.”
However, Simi Nijher, senior strategist at Re, says amid the cost of living crisis, brands must respond by providing people with options that meet their expectations while continuing to prioritize a sustainable and affordable food system. “This means investing in innovations that change the way we source, produce and consume food, all while providing people with choice and affordable options.”
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Change meats progress
The issue of cost extends beyond produce and into protein, as our modern appetite for meat has a huge environmental impact with 26% of the Earth’s surface used for industrialized livestock production.
Luckily, we are seeing a shift towards eating plant-based proteins that require less processing. This is promising in terms of human health and consumer preference. Michael Corlett from Deliciously Ella, a plant-based food and wellness platform, says the Covid-19 pandemic actually accelerated the journey towards plant-based for a lot of consumers. “When you interview consumers directly, they’re now eating plant-based for their health,” he says.
However, the cost of living crisis continues to hold its grip on people’s eating habits, with recent data from NIQ revealing that despite 4.1m (14.3%) of UK households containing a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or flexitarian diet in 2023, a focus on value and price points is leading the plant-based category to struggle for growth.
To alleviate this, says Nijher: “It’s important that brands and agencies work together to solve these critical issues. Collaboration and shared learnings are key. And an openness to doing things differently. There are businesses that now look to bring together different companies to solve some of the food system’s greatest challenges. Specifically in the UK, we spoke to the Alternative Proteins Association, which represents British businesses that are transforming the way we eat and drink. It brings different voices together across the alternative proteins industry to share challenges and learnings.”
Matthew Isaacs, co-founder of the carbon emissions tracking app My Emissions, believes it’s also crucial for people to understand the carbon footprint of their own diet. “The first thing brands and agencies can do is educate,” he says. “There’s currently very little awareness about the environmental impact of food and where this comes from. If someone hears ’food emissions’, their first thought is probably about packaging.
“Brands and agencies are in a prime position to explain that food has an impact on the planet. They can start by showing the impact of each product and, based on the data in the My Emissions database, I’d expect that what you eat makes the biggest difference rather than where it comes from or how it’s packaged.
“And we might find there’s a parallel between higher emissions and higher costs. For example, the cost of beef is rising and it’s also one of the highest-emission foods. So swapping from beef to an alternative meat such as chicken or pork can potentially reduce emissions and save money.”
Overall, Nijher says Re concluded that innovative companies that harness the power of new technologies will cut through to consumers, adding: “There is a clear B2B brand opportunity to create systems and processes that facilitate transparent supply chain management, but there is a clear B2C opportunity in allowing consumers to gain insight into provenance and ethics of their food, coffees and wine supply by scanning a QR code or NFC tag.”