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How can food businesses enable more sustainable consumer diets?

Consumer behavior is one of the hardest things to tackle about sustainable diets.

Veggies on shelves

How to get consumers to pick more sustainably at the grocer. Image via Sabrina Bqain/WWF.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

As a sustainability professional and Ph.D. researcher working on a partnership with one of the United Kingdom’s largest food retailers, I’m fascinated by one particular question: How can you enable consumers to buy and eat differently? We make over 200 food decisions a day, the majority of which are unconscious, so there is a multitude of opportunities to intervene and help people make better choices.

Using marketing to normalize sustainable diets, nudge and support consumers to make choices that are better for them and the planet is an important lever for change. My research has involved exploring the effects of food retail marketing campaigns in the U.K., and the findings from two campaigns that each took different approaches to influencing consumer diets can shed light on how these marketing investments play out.

Nature is in freefall, and our current food system is one of the major drivers. Transitioning to a more sustainable food system will require improvements in food production, food loss and waste and food consumption. Shifting to more sustainable diets, particularly in high-income countries, is vital.

One thing food businesses can do to drive a transition to more sustainable diets is to start rebalancing what consumers put in their baskets and on their plates — including increasing the share of plant-based foods including pulses (such as chickpeas and lentils), legumes, vegetables and whole grains.

Nudging better choices in store

A major U.K. retailer ran a national in-store "Veganuary" campaign across all its stores. The campaign aimed to increase plant-based products' accessibility, affordability and visibility by moving them to prime locations in store — at eye-level and on aisle ends — and introducing price promotions and loyalty card incentives. Colorful point of sale materials highlighted the benefits of eating more plant-based foods, and recipe cards were displayed on shelf-edges next to the promoted products to make it easy for consumers to understand how to use them. Promoted products included meat and dairy alternatives but also tinned pulses and whole grain pasta and rice.

My role was to provide an independent evaluation of campaign performance. It showed that sales of promoted products increased by 58 percent during the campaign period and remained 15 percent higher than baseline three months after the campaign ended. 

While the campaign saw a rise in plant-based sales, no significant change in meat sales was observed, indicating that approaches that more directly target meat products (such as reducing pack sizes and shelf space) are needed to enable healthier, more sustainable diets rather than simply encouraging consumers to buy more.

Engaging with consumers on sustainable diets

A different approach was taken by the second retailer I worked with, Marks & Spencer (M&S). In partnership with environmental organization Hubbub, they designed a digital campaign using a tried and tested behavior change model.

The campaign targeted three sustainable diet behaviors: protein consumption; food waste; and scratch cooking — cooking more from scratch has been linked to healthier diets. It aimed to address barriers to change, improve attitudes and knowledge, and create long-lasting behavioral shifts across these three areas. 

Engaging more deeply with consumers to understand their motivations and barriers to change should be a key aspect of campaign design.

The campaign engaged 100 households, including retirees, families with children and young couples. What they all had in common was a desire to be more sustainable and an openness to eat differently for their health, their family or the planet. Marks & Spencer and Hubbub provided participants with a range of tools, including recipes, tips and hacks, live cook-alongs and educational content and meal planners. They were also given the products they needed to participate in the cook-alongs, removing the risk element often cited as a barrier to trying new foods. They had access to a private Facebook group where they shared recipes, photos of their meals and asked each other questions. This was key in creating a community and providing group support.

After the campaign, households reported eating less meat (from 5-6 to 3-4 times a week) and more plant proteins and vegetables (the number of households eating five portions of vegetables a day increased from 40 percent to 68 percent), wasting less food (the households reporting "never wasting food" upped from 9 percent to 49 percent) and cooking more from scratch (73 percent of households were cooking more from scratch). Sustainable diet knowledge, intention to buy plant-based meat alternatives and cooking confidence increased too. These effects lasted three months after the end of the campaign, with meat consumption dropping further to only one to two times a week over that time, demonstrating the importance of supporting consumers on their diet change journeys to create long-term change.

Looking to the future

While these insights are in some ways unique to the U.K. — for example, the need to focus on cooking skills training might be less important in other markets — these two campaigns yield some important insights for food companies no matter where they are based.

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

Firstly, making products easier for consumers to find and see, and more affordable, can lead to higher sales. However, to enable more sustainable consumer diets, this uptick in plant-based needs to be met with a down-tick in meat and dairy. To achieve this, strategies and marketing campaigns need to be designed with the aim of rebalancing baskets and plates and increasing the share of plant-based in the basket or on the menu, rather than just increasing sales on a unit basis.

Secondly, engaging more deeply with consumers to understand their motivations and barriers to change should be a key aspect of campaign design. Using this information to design targeted engagement campaigns that increase skills, address knowledge gaps and improve confidence can generate longer-term behavior change and improve brand perception. However, consumers need to be open to change for an engagement campaign such as this to work. A subconscious design approach might work better with more resistant customers. 

When I started working with food companies, sustainable diets was a difficult topic to gain traction. But that’s changing. In the past couple of years in the U.K., both Tesco and Sainsbury’s have started talking to consumers about the benefits of eating more vegetables and plant proteins.

Ultimately, efforts to change consumer behavior will need to be accompanied by more strategic and fundamental shifts. Food companies need to actively shift their product portfolios and menus to focus on sustainably sourced plants and "less and better" meat. Policymakers need to adapt legislation and regulation to create an enabling environment for companies, farmers and consumers. But we all have a role in creating a positive food culture centered around nutritious, sustainable, delicious food. That’s why supporting consumers to eat better for their health and the planet is such a good place to start.

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