The Green Train is No Band Wagon. It’s a Bona Fide TGV Consumer Express!

Here’s a challenge: explain consumers’ understanding of sustainable food in a 140 character tweet – oh, go on then, try the new 280 character option! Succinct descriptions of complex topics are very fashionable with politicians and business leaders alike and we, the hoi polloi, have to work out what is genuine and what is fake news on food.

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Back in the early-noughties, David spoke on themes such as “The Green Train Has Left the Station: Get On Board!”. Continuing the green theme, in one of our early supermarketsinyourpocket posts, 3 years ago, we concluded:

“Bottom Line: consumers are and will increasingly ask more of those who produce and retail their food, whether it be local, animal welfare-friendly, environmentally sustainable, chemical-free, or whatever, the “green bar” is rising inexorably. Consumer citizens will have their way and they won’t pay a premium for ethical food – they’ll simply discount those that fail to meet their ever-rising expectations about the food they feed their families.”

Frankly, today, we wouldn’t change a word of the above. Back in 2006/7, 1% of new products launched around the world had some environmental/ethical claims but this had climbed to 22% by 2016/17 (Mintel). “Natural” claims (e.g. no additives, preservative-free, organic, GMO-free) rose from 17% to 29% over the same period. The USA has led the charge: Euromonitor estimate the American market for ethical food products to be around $270 billion in 2018, with environmental issues foremost and animal welfare much less so than in Europe. Mind you, pervasive use of “green” terms can dilute their impact, particularly, if loose usage has no foundation. That’s why, transparency and traceability in the supply chain is a “must have” and not a “nice to have”. The flurry of interest in blockchain technology (a digital business version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”) is testament to this. Clearly, American consumers’ interest in “what’s in my food [the ingredients], how was it produced and who produced it?” extends much further than well-heeled Whole Foods Market customers.

The impact of the rising “green bar” is well illustrated through Danone’s American journey over the past couple of years: buying WhiteWave Foods for $12.5 bn. in 2017, which is a major producer of “green” food products (e.g. organic, plant-based, “non-dairy dairy” brands such as Alpro and Silk) to assist it in exiting the slough of despond afflicting “Big Food” companies in North America. Danone North America has been accredited B Corp status (April 12th, 2018) whereby it is third party certified for achieving rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency: walking the talk of its mission “to bring health through food to as many people as possible”. Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s CEO believes that “increasing distrust of the global food system and the consumer-driven revolution in food are the two sides of the same coin. (Consumers) want to understand who are the people behind the brands and how the ingredients have been grown and what the impact is going to be on their health and the planet and everything. Then, of course, they choose” and they may or may not take these factors into consideration when making the actual purchase – that’s their prerogative to be glowingly rational, quixotic or palpably irrational!

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Increasingly, there’s no hiding place for food companies and their ingredient suppliers. Ten years ago, fast food customers wouldn’t have thought to mull on where the soybeans came from that were fed to the chickens that were processed and, then, dusted with the Colonel’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices. Now, they’re concerned that this journey may have involved the destruction of the Amazon rain forest (come to think of it, it’s increasingly difficult to have ANY secret recipe because were those secret spices processed in a factory in India manned by children?). It’s moot whether serried ranks of consumers are spending their time mulling such issues, but WWF are watching every step of your suppliers and will spill the soybeans if there are transgressions.

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Note to readers: DON’T cross The Panda or she’ll knock your block off!

So, where’s the “Green Train” now – decelerating gently as it approaches the terminus? Well, NO it’s picking up speed driven by the winds of social media, activist organisations, governments, and concerned consumers and it’s international, not just a British foible, with huge implications for the global food industry. The consumer issues agenda lengthens:

  • food waste is a big issue: with Tesco pledging to halve food waste in conjunction with its suppliers by 2030; the launch in the UK of the Karma food waste app; ugly/wonky fresh produce becomes fashionable. Spare Fruit differentiates itself in the market by using fruit not meeting supermarket specifications;
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  • food packaging is set for a drubbing (see last month’s blog). Waitrose is removing all disposable coffee cups from its stores this year. Major players are pledging to have full recyclability for their packs by 2025 – they won’t be allowed that much time by consumers and will have to adopt a “Hurry Up Offence” (as NFL teams say when they are attempting to clutch victory from the jaws of defeat!) to get there sooner!;
  • governments are losing patience with consumers and the food industry as the NHS buckles under the weight of diet-related disease costs. Initially exhorting consumers to eat more healthier, then, pressure was applied to the food industry to cut sugar, salt and fat levels and, now, it’s the heavy stick of taxation.

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Public Health England has launched several campaigns to influence shoppers’ decisions and make them aware of the sugar and calories they are consuming

Health is the driving force behind the greening of the global food industry but it’s much more than the consumer’s health. The Number 1 global consumer mega-trend is the growing concern about the health of the family and the health of the planet. Increasingly, when shopping consumers will take previously considered esoteric environmental and social concerns into account and, albeit modified by inter alia their financial situation and the eating occasion (e.g. special meal, refuelling “grab & go”), they will make “meaningful choices”. Do they have a better defined notion of sustainability than in the past? No, but inexorably, they are recognising that they can influence the direction and outcomes in the food industry through their purchasing behaviour. Now, sometimes this can be scary if they get hold of the wrong end of the stick or are unduly influenced by crackpots or wicked corporations manipulating research data to further their venal ends. But, in the end, we’d back the common sense of the masses to exhibit “parish pump wisdom”. In bygone times, the women of the village would gather around the water pump to wash clothes and discuss the matters of the day. Invariably, after discarding the dross, a consensus would emerge on what was the right thing to do and who was the hero and who was the villain! Used perspicaciously, social media vehicles, including shamed facebook, has become the global parish pump!

Shoppers are getting more and more involved in the food they are buying. They want a meal and snack solution without a mess – in the home, on the farm, on our planet. In fact, their preference is to have meal solutions coincide with solutions for our planet and those that live in it. Monitor consumer concerns and adapt your products and services accordingly. Don’t become the sugar-laden breakfast cereal or fizzy drink of your sector. Consumer scrutiny of the food and drink industry will only increase. What issues are edging on to the radar screen? That’s for another blog, but be open, talk to your customers and to special interest organisations that are active in your sector and they’ll give you advance notice on future issues. Be open and they’ll respect this. When consumers are eating your products, they are sharing their views with friends and almost anyone else who is stuck on a train or motorway – make it a trialogue!

Take a good look at what the best of “Big Food” is doing to become more transparent and engaging with their customers. We gave the example of Danone with its B Corporation accreditation. Triple Bottom Line preceded it and Net positive Futures shares a similar space. Business is changing fast – the consumer is driving the Green Train and it’s no Band Wagon. It’s  a bona fide TGV Consumer Express!

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Posted in Credentials, Sustainability

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About the authors
Prof David Hughes: Around the world, David speaks to senior agribusiness and food industry managers about global food industry developments that are and will affect their businesses and industry. Energetic, engaging, humorous and insightful, David gains the very highest evaluations at seminars, conferences and Board level discussions in every continent he visits. Miguel Flavián: works for several Spanish organisations and companies to help them to learn from the developments of the British grocery market and improve their business back home.
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