3 Sustainability Trends Driving Change in the Food and Nutrition Industry
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"Sustainability" is a word that’s often used in a variety of diverse and often seemingly disparate contexts. While that might seem like a problem, it is, in fact, a feature, not a bug. Although there are a variety of definitions, this one by the Harvard School of Public Health sums the essence up nicely: “Sustainability means the enactment of practices that fulfill the needs of society while protecting the physical basis of our long-term survival, our environment.
In the food and nutrition industry, there has been a strong shift toward sustainability in many forms, urged on by a wider societal shift in the same direction. More people want to eat and live “green,” minimizing the harm their actions cause on the environment and maximizing the health benefits they get from their food choices. According to research by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), 59 percent of consumers surveyed in 2018 said it was important that the foods they purchased be produced in a sustainable way, up from 50 percent in 2017, and the highest growth in retail came from products with sustainable farming and social responsibility claims, showing that there’s a solid business case for pursuing sustainable production.
Healthful, green ingredients
Some 65 percent of consumers look for products that can help them live a more sustainable and socially responsible life. The way they determine that is primarily by looking at the ingredients list on products, especially as more companies are acceding to popular demand by using clear, easy-to-understand food labeling practices. Generally, people prefer to see natural ingredients, and a lot of chemical ones will likely turn a large number of people off. The brands taking this approach range from KFC (Australia) and Unilever to WoofWell in the pet food space.
Many companies try to take a shortcut by using misleading names for the ingredients in the products, skirting the law to use labels that while technically accurate, are designed to hide the fact that their products are not as healthy as they claim. This strategy may work for a short while, but it is inevitably going to backfire as more consumers begin to use online review websites to read through assessments of products before they make a purchase. When a brand has been outed as misleading its buyers, the reputational damage from mislabeling is likely to cause serious damage to its sales in the long-term.
Another crucial trend is the focus by consumers on buying food products made with sustainably sourced ingredients. The primary determining factor here is whether the ingredients have been produced using practices that are beneficial for the environment. The specifics of this are highly dependent on the industry, with different sectors adopting a variety of approaches and using labels to mark which producers are adhering to the defined sustainability standards, such as the California Sustainable Wine Growing Alliance, which uses metrics such as water, energy and nitrogen use to assign labels to wines produced in qualifying vineyards.
Another important point is the distance the product has covered from the point of manufacture to the grocery store (commonly referred to as “food miles”) since that impacts its carbon footprint. There is an emphasis on buying locally made food whenever possible, and brands looking to overcome that sentiment will have to show that they excel in other aspects of sustainability, such as by using fully natural and healthful ingredients.
Inclusive diet choices
The third crucial trend relates to the first point of the definition cited above — fulfilling the needs of society. There has long been a perception that manufacturing generally and the food industry, in particular, have been focused on mass production to the detriment of people who have less common requirements. An Accenture research study found that more than half of U.S. millennials are on a specific diet, such as keto, plant-based or vegan, with many citing health, ethical and environmental concerns as their reasons for following their particular diet.
Clearly, there’s a market for these specific diets. Brands that provide options that fit into these diets will be rewarded with customer dollars and loyalty, which will, in turn, benefit the brand as a whole, including their more mainstream products.