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Sustainable Eating and the Environmental Cost of Food

9/16/2021
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Sustainable Eating and the Environmental Cost of Food

Sustainability is needed at the heart of business strategy so environmental and social goals can be integrated into companies' targets and activities. The ultimate goal is to create long-term value, not only for stakeholders but also for the wider society. The food industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and therefore there is a need to rethink our food systems. Increased demand for plant-based diets and tech-driven innovation to achieve more efficient agricultural practices are but two examples of the ongoing change in this space.

Consumer demand for more eco-friendly options skyrockets

There are a growing number of consumers looking for food brands that align with their personal values and are willing to pay a premium for sustainable offerings over a non-sustainable competitor food brand.

Indeed, 67% of global consumers try to have a positive impact on the environment through their everyday actions (Euromonitor’s Voice of the Consumer Lifestyles survey, 2021) and the most popular ways of doing so are by reducing plastic use, fighting food waste and recycling.

Food and drink manufacturers, as well as other stakeholders across the supply chain, should embrace sustainability strategies as a business philosophy, including more sustainable packaging, efficient use of resources, developments in organic offerings, animal welfare and social commitments. Equally important is engaging with consumers and communicating goals and achievements in an honest and transparent way. 

Key focus areas for food businesses in the sustainability space

Climate-friendly innovation: A growing population means that there is a need to change the way we eat and produce food so the impact on the planet can be reduced. Climate-friendly innovation is aimed at making the production, transportation and preservation of food more sustainable, from reducing food waste, improving supply-chain transparency, removing plastic from the equation to localising our food systems so food can be grown closer to the increased population in the cities.

Socially responsible initiatives: Consumers are buying with purpose and manufacturers increasingly aim to deliver a positive social impact alongside profitable growth. The demand for inclusivity and accessibility of food has been accelerated on the back of the pandemic, with consumers expecting businesses to put purpose at the forefront of their strategies.

Organic for me, organic for the planet: Although demand for organic food is mainly driven by its health perception in comparison to regular offerings, sustainability is also an important factor. Organic farming aims to protect soil biodiversity and avoids the use of pesticides, fertilisers, GMO, antibiotics and growth hormones. However, organic agriculture does not come without challenges (affordability, low yields, etc) so more economic support is needed to meet the increasing demand for organic produce.

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Source: Euromonitor International, Health & Nutrition Survey, fielded January-February 2021, n=4,967

Plastic-free future: According to Euromonitor’s Lifestyles survey 2021 (n=26,222), using less plastic is the most popular green activity among consumers with 61% of them reducing their use of plastics to positively impact the environment or lead to a more sustainable lifestyle. However, there is still a long way to go to get more sustainable options in the market and communicate this to consumers. “Can be recycled” packaging claims are the most popular in the food industry. However, they are only present in 1.5% of total packaged food products available in e-commerce platforms in Western Europe and North America, which shows the need for more developments in this space.

The fight against food waste:  Reductions in food loss and waste could yield tangible gains in food security (mainly in emerging countries with high levels of food insecurity) and reductions of environmental footprint, cutting gas emissions. One of the key points to tackle food loss and waste is educating consumers by promoting seasonal produce, giving clearer explanations of food miles and the importance of local sourcing as well as embracing “ugly” fruits and vegetables rather than throwing away food that does not meet cosmetic supermarket standards.

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Source: Euromonitor International’s Lifestyles survey, fielded January-February 2021, n=26,222

Animal welfare: This can be defined as the enhancement of the physical and mental health of animals. It is of high importance for consumers but also for all parties in the supply chain (farmers and retailers). However, there is still a long way to go on this front. In 2020, 29% of eggs sold online globally hold a free-range claim, while only 5% of fresh meat was free-range. Netherlands and the UK are ahead of the curve on this front while other large fresh food markets like the US or Germany, which offer opportunities in the long run, currently lag far behind.

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Source: Euromonitor International Product Claims and Positioning

Become tomorrow’s next sustainability leader in the food industry

Businesses need to put sustainability at the heart of the organisation, set actionable targets and ensure that there is real progress that is communicated with clarity. Retailers are also a key piece of the puzzle, where inventory and waste management are pivotal, as is reducing wasted packaging and boosting sustainable fulfilment. Also important is the topic of going back to roots and focusing on locally sourced ingredients and farming techniques that protect natural resources, which can increase supply chain resilience.

For more insights, see the report Sustainable Eating and the Environmental Cost of Food.

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