Five Trends in Communicating Food Sustainability to Consumers

Five Trends in Communicating Food Sustainability to Consumers

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in April 2022 made a clear case for the need to transform our global food system to a more sustainable basis. The report estimates that “21–37% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to the food system” including agriculture, land use, storage, transport, packaging, processing, retail and consumption.

On the consumption side, we can see early signs of shifts in food choices: 24% of people across the world said they intend to eat less meat as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, while rates of vegetarianism and veganism continue to slowly rise in many developed countries (GlobeScan’s Healthy & Sustainable Living 2021 research). To drive the seismic shift that we need, however, we need to enable and encourage more consumers to make more informed, sustainable food choices at scale.

So how are communications in the food sustainability space evolving to meet this challenge?

As part of our recent collaboration with UNEP’s One Planet Network and WWF, GlobeScan has published a series of case studies, alongside a report Communicating Food Sustainability to Consumers: Towards more Effective Labelling, led by our colleagues at WWF. Here we summarise five key trends in food sustainability communications that emerged from the case studies and the expert interviews we conducted as part of the process. Three of the trends relate to the labelling of food sustainability claims, while the final two look describe the actions of some of the brands moving beyond labels.

  1. Third party certification labels balance relevance with simplicity. The success of mature certifications such as Fairtrade International, MSC and Rainforest Alliance has been in their ability to easily help interested consumers to identify more sustainable and/or ethical food products at the point of purchase. Amidst a sea of labels, third party certifications have been striving to build consumer awareness for decades but in mature (primarily European) markets, where there is relatively good recognition of some of these labels, the challenge now is to ensure continued relevance in a world where a diverse array of sustainability issues are discussed more and more. These organisations need to build consumer understanding and trust, and demonstrate that they cover the criteria that consumers are interested in. As consumers hear and understand more about the lifecycle impacts of the food we eat, this challenge to remain relevant in a simple and clear way will grow. Leading certification organisations are doing this by communicating directly with consumers themselves, as well as via their brand partners, with relevant and emotive storytelling to bring the benefits and impacts of their labels to life. 
  1. Impact ratings and footprinting labels pursue transparency. One response to the growing demand for more information about the holistic impacts of our food is the number of new labels that rate the lifecycle environmental impact of products. One early example is Foundation Earth’s Eco-Impact label which uses individual product LCA data and a traffic light system to communicate the impacts of the product via a label on pack. Another is Eco-Score, being trialled by Lidl among other companies, which uses aggregated LCA data to label products in a similar way. The challenge facing these fledgling initiatives is to translate complex data into something meaningful for the end consumer. GlobeScan’s bespoke research findings repeatedly indicate that consumers value transparency, but there is a caveat – it needs to be meaningful and understandable. Transparent data and information on its own is not sufficient to inspire behaviour change and can confuse consumers further. This is a challenge that Evocco, the climate impact tracking app, has sought to overcome by benchmarking a products’ CO2e emissions against the amount of CO2e per person per month from food that would keep us within planetary boundaries and on track for a 1.5-degree world. 
  1. Some well-trusted brands choose to develop their own sustainability labels. The potential for confusion and lack of differentiation between sustainability labels, coupled with high costs of certification in some cases, have led some brands and retailers to develop their own visual branding of sustainability. The goal is to make it easier for shoppers to look for one recognisable label across products and to reassure consumers that the products they buy are responsible or sustainable. Some are doing this instead of using third party labels, such as Woolworths South Africa’s Farming for the Future label, while others are doing it in addition, alongside certifications, such as John West Australia’s Our Oceans Forever label, added on tuna cans alongside the MSC label. If a company is well-trusted these labels can help the consumer to easily identify sustainable options across different products, without needing any knowledge of different issues or impacts. Brands must be careful, however, to back up their claims with evidence. GlobeScan’s research shows that consumers have more trust in communications from independent parties, and focus groups often reveal sceptism when presented with a company’s own claims on this topic, unless they are backed up.   
  1. Beyond labelling, some purpose-led brands communicate through connection points with consumers. Some sustainability leaders are communicating beyond labelling and integrating sustainability into their product and brand-level communications, often through multi-channel campaigns. Unilever brands like Knorr and Hellman’s do this by finding relevant touchpoints with their products so they can encourage easy changes in consumer lifestyles. Knorr provides plant-based meal recipes for its stock or bouillon products to encourage consumers to try new healthier, lower carbon, meat-free recipes than their usual, through its Future 50 Foods Cookbook, released in 2020 in collaboration with WWF. Hellman’s encourages consumers to fight food waste by using mayonnaise to help use up leftover food.  
  1. Progressive food brands use provocative communications to challenge entire industries. Some smaller, purpose-driven companies like Oatly, Equifruit or Tony’s Chocolonely are taking a more confrontational approach to capture consumer interest, with campaigns aiming to reveal the fundamentally unsustainable nature of the wider industry and status quo. Plant-based, dairy-alternative company Oatly’s “Are You Stupid?” campaigned criticised a legal challenge by the European Dairy Association against use of terms such as “dairy-free” while slogans such a “wow, no cow” and “milk, but made for humans” take direct aim at the conventional dairy industry. Oatly uses carbon footprinting as a foundation for its provocative approach to communications, aiming to provide meaningful transparency to consumers and evidence of the difference in emissions created by dairy milk, versus oat-based alternatives.  

These five trends in communicating food sustainability to consumers reveal a divergence of approach with differing opinions on the most effective forms of labelling and messaging. Experts we have consulted call for more collaboration between the actors in this space, to facilitate the alignment that we need in order for consumers to make sense of communications and to trigger behavioural change at scale.  

GlobeScan regularly supports clients across sectors with research and advisory services to explore how to transparently and meaningfully communicate sustainability, to build trust and ultimately trigger more sustainable purchases and behaviours. To find out more about our work in this space, please contact Abbie Curtis O’Reilly or Caroline Holme