The latest food trend isn’t a particular cuisine or exotic ingredient; it’s sustainability. Nearly 75 percent of Americans think sustainability is important when deciding what food to buy. The food industry has noticed. In Britain, close to half of those surveyed across the food industry say their customers want more sustainable food options.
The new Better Buying Lab — a partnership between the World Resources Institute (WRI) with major companies including Google, Sainsbury’s, Hilton Worldwide and other leaders in the food industry — aims to help them do just that.
There’s good reason for this change in food preferences. WRI’s recent Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future report found that even small changes in diet can have big environmental impacts. Foods such as meat and dairy put much more pressure on land, water and climate than plant-based foods. If the average American cut their consumption of animal-based protein in half, they would decrease the land use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with their diet by 43 to 45 percent. Applied to 2 billion of the world’s high consumers of protein, this would free up 1.5 billion acres (640 million hectares) of agricultural land, an area roughly twice the size of India.
As Dr. Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI, says, “If we want to feed a growing population without straining natural resources, we have to do more than change mindsets; we have to change diets.”
Why then — given the recognized benefits of plant-based diets and the growing number of people who want to consume sustainable foods — don’t more people change what they eat?
Changing Behavior Isn’t Easy, But It Is Doable
Shopping for food at the supermarket or ordering from a favorite restaurant involve deeply habitual and subconscious decision-making processes. Shoppers tend to rely on routine. Rarely do they notice new information and remember it, let alone act on it. When it comes to food, many people make buying decisions on auto-pilot.
So it’s no surprise that past government and NGO efforts to encourage more plant-based diets, which have largely centered around information campaigns, haven’t moved many people to change their diets. A broader set of strategies that target how customers actually make purchasing decisions can be more effective.
We have some examples to learn from. Just take the UK’s shift to lower-alcohol drinks. In 2011, the government set a challenge for the beverage industry to remove 1 billion alcohol units from people’s diets by 2015. The industry saw lower-alcohol beers as part of the solution, but it hadn’t yet found a way to make them popular.
The beverage industry started by identifying what prevented people from wanting to choose lower-alcohol drinks. They found that alcohol is an important taste factor and removing it makes a beer less enjoyable, while there was no compelling reason for consumers to choose a lower-alcohol beer.
In 2012, Molson Coors launched Carling Zest, a beer with 2.8 percent alcohol – compared to the average beer’s 4.8 percent — and which was amped up with lemon, lime and ginger flavors. It was marketed as the refreshing choice, and Molson Coors invested in advertising and promotional displays in stores. In addition, the UK government decreased taxes on lower-alcohol drinks and increased taxes on beers with 7.5 percent or higher alcohol. Sales took off, other companies launched their own drinks, and — coupled with a slight decrease in the alcohol content of all major beers — by 2013, the UK had reached its goal of reducing the number of alcohol units consumed by over a billion.
In all of the examples WRI has analyzed, we have found that change happened when businesses identified the barriers to adopting something new and developed creative strategies to overcome them. WRI’s Shift Wheel, a framework for strategies to create changes in consumption, was developed based on examples like the UK beverage industry’s success.
Pioneering Sustainable Food Strategies
Researchers have uncovered a wide range of barriers that prevent more people from adopting diets rich in sustainable, plant-based foods, offering valuable insights into why people choose the foods they do. But there’s more to unearth about these barriers and how to turn knowledge into action.
The Better Buying Lab takes a fresh approach to help people eat more sustainable food. By engaging a diverse group of marketing experts and industry partners, the Lab aims to examine the barriers to sustainable food consumption and create innovative strategies to help consumers make sustainable food choices.
By bringing together the brightest minds from consumer research, behavioral economics and marketing strategy, along with companies in the food industry, the Lab will research, test and ultimately scale new strategies and actions that enable consumers to choose more sustainable products.
The Lab’s partners also include leading companies such as Quorn and Triniti Marketing. Membership is growing, and the Lab will release its first findings later this year.