Why food ethics should be at the top of the supermarket agenda

According to a new report from Veris Strategies, supermarkets must do more to ensure that ethical practices are widespread and accessible to connect with consumers.

13 December 2019
animal welfarefarmingfood wastepackagingplasticsupermarketssustainability

Last week, Kantar released findings from a survey of over 1,200 UK consumers who were questioned on their purchasing decisions based on the ethics of food brands.

Of those questioned, 77% said that they had switched, avoided or boycotted certain products - or would consider doing so in the future - because of food brands’ environmental practices.

Global warming was the number one environmental concern (25%), followed by the overuse of plastic and non-recyclable packaging (18%).

Lots has been made of the plastic problem of late, with this month’s damming report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace showing that the 10 biggest supermarket chains in the UK collectively increasing their single-use plastic packaging use from 2017 to 2018, by 17,000 tonnes, to a total of 903,000.

Supermarkets’ plastic-free pledges need to connect with customers to gather traction, which is not yet happening according a new report from progressive sustainability agency, Veris Strategies, who reaffirm that ethical concerns are critical to customer perception in the current plant-powered climate.

Thinking circular

“Our moral compass is increasingly being defined by what we choose to eat,” reads the report. “More people are examining the impact of food choices they make, motivated by mindfulness for the planet, people, animals and health.

“This is being reflected by a growing national appetite for ethically produced food. An Ethical Consumer study found the UK ethical food and drink market grew by 16.3% in 2017 – the largest increase since 2012.”

Veris say that, according to their own research, one third (33%) of British grocery shoppers regularly think about the ethical impact of the food they eat, with 86% of their 27-strong panel of food and circular economy experts saying that consumers are increasingly basing their food choices on credentials such as food integrity, deforestation and fair trade.

The report champions a move to a wider adoption of circular thinking, with the concept of circular economy defined as a move towards eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.

This, explains Veris, could be widely adopted in the food industry beyond the existing focus on just food waste in order to further connect with consumers and address wider areas of concern such as animal welfare, worker’s rights and supply chain traceability.

Accessible ethical

Veris warns that supermarket pledges relating to plastic, palm oil and supply chain traceability “are not yet connecting with consumers.”

“Given that more than half of shoppers expressing concern on food ethics actively support pressure groups such as PETA and Greenpeace, the food industry risks inviting further scrutiny.”

“But it’s not enough for food companies to ensure their pledges cut through. They need to build on them to make ethical eating more accessible and affordable. Our research indicates 79% of shoppers may now be willing to take action to ensure their purchases are ethically sourced or produced; young people (18-34 years old) especially so.

“These actions can take various forms – boycotting brands/supermarkets, shopping around, paying a small premium, even removing certain foods from diets.”

The ever-rising popularity of plant-based diets is testament to the fact that consumers are, perhaps more than ever, thinking more in terms of the bigger, environmental picture, with major UK supermarkets now fully primed towards offering dedicated and considered plant-based ranges.

The rise in dairy-alternatives is a fine example with more than a quarter (27%) of 2,000 surveyed by Mintel saying that they no longer use standard cow’s milk, with the principal reasons given related to health (37%) and environmental concerns (36%).

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