Product, Service & Design Innovation
Key Steps for Successfully Engaging Consumers to Eat Sustainably

Everyday conversations about food are shifting from questions about whether to eat gluten or saturated fat to a new era in consumer food choices: sustainable diets. Some of this focus stems from recent findings reported by the federal government linking dietary choices to environmental impact and is bolstered by consumers’ awareness that their choices affect both their health and the environment. Consumers have long been seeking healthy food options and now the majority of consumers state that they intend to make changes in their diet for environmental reasons.

Companies have a significant role to play in helping consumers engage in sustainable eating. What are the guiding approaches for responsible corporations in this effort?

10 Principles Outline a More Sustainable Path

A new book, The 10 Principles of Sustainability in the Food Industry, outlines the top strategies for promoting sustainability in our food supply. The principles highlight approaches to producing food that is inherently healthy and more environmentally and socially responsible, with the tenth principle pointing to the interaction between the food industry and consumers. Key practices include providing consumers with preferable food options and helping them select such options and reduce wasted food.

Compass Group Points the Way

The Compass Group USA, a contract food service provider for businesses and universities, demonstrates how a company can support consumers in eating more sustainably. The organization adopted new initiatives in 2015 aimed at improving the availability of healthy choices while also fostering the health of the planet. The Compass Group based its efforts (including what they consider preferable options for its consumers, since there are different approaches to this) on the Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus, developed by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and the firm’s past experience. The key actions of these new efforts include increasing fruit, vegetables and plant-based protein offerings, and reducing meat in recipes and menus.

Bon Appétit Management Company, a division of the Compass Group, already has several years of experience with this approach through a program called the Low-Carbon Diet that has the following principles:

  1. You Bought It, You Eat It — Don’t Waste Food
  2. Make “Seasonal and Regional” Your Food Mantra
  3. Moooove Away from Beef and Cheese
  4. Stop Flying Fish and Fruit — Don’t Buy Air-Freighted Food
  5. If It’s Processed and Packaged, Skip It

Through this effort, Bon Appétit reduced the carbon footprint of key areas by 25 percent by no longer buying air-freighted seafood and non-tropical fruits and vegetables from outside North America; reducing the use of tropical fruit by half, beef purchases by 33 percent, and cheese by 10 percent; and avoiding one-third of food waste, including waste from consumers.

In countries such as the U.S., consumers are responsible for about one-third of food waste, more than any other part of the food chain. To combat this, Bon Appétit pioneered removing trays from dining halls resulting in up to 30 percent less consumer waste. They also educated their consumers by weighing and measuring wasted food at dish return stations.

The Compass Group and other food service providers are not alone in engaging consumers in sustainable eating. Food companies are also providing preferable food options, helping consumers select them, and encouraging less food waste. Innocent, a UK-based food company, embedded environmental and nutritional goals into its product development process to provide its consumers with a better balance in its product offerings. Innocent also provides consumers with information and recipe suggestions that promote a sustainable diet and less waste.

Food companies can help consumers reduce food waste at home through labels with directions on proper storage practices (e.g., freezing) to extend product life and understandable use-by dates (and remove sell-by dates). Organizations are also exploring supply chain-wide solutions from produce varieties with a longer life to improved ordering to ensure the freshest product is available for consumer purchase.

The public’s increased attention to sustainable diets is an opportunity for proactive companies to explore their role in engaging consumers in preferable behaviors. Firms can ground their efforts with The 10 Principles of Food Industry Sustainability and the proven approaches from other food companies to support consumers who are choosing healthy foods with a smaller environmental footprint while also embracing new behaviors to stop wasting what they buy.

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