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Brands face a harsher climate for sustainability claims

Article-Brands face a harsher climate for sustainability claims

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With sharper consumer focus on climate change, businesses need to up their game when it comes to sustainability priorities and messaging. “It’s definitely death to ‘environmentally friendly’,” says one Mintel expert. “Nothing is ‘environmentally friendly’: everything has to be grown, creates waste, uses energy.”

Both consumers and businesses are experiencing first-hand what happens when food and drink supply chains are disrupted by climate change, according to Mintel senior trends consultant Richard Cope at the Fi Europe Sustainability Hub in Frankfurt 2023.

“The reason why businesses are embracing sustainability is not because they’re wonderful people or really ethical, but because there’s a commercial case – a return on investment,” he said, pointing out that this return came not only from responding to consumer concerns but also operationally. “Companies don’t want to be vulnerable to supply chain disruption or price rises, either.”

Cope quoted data from Mintel’s 2023 report A Global Outlook on Sustainability: a Consumer Study showing that 46% of the consumers polled said that eco-activism had raised their awareness of environmental issues. “Companies need to be prepared to deal with more savvy, activated and informed consumers,” he said.

Consumers want direct action for direct impact

He cited the example of carbon offsetting, which he described as being “in crisis”. In fact, some two-thirds of those polled by Mintel said companies should not resort to this mechanism. “The general public are aware that carbon offsetting cannot deliver the additionality required for a genuine ‘offset’ to happen,” Cope explained. “They want companies to take direct action to reduce emissions.”

He identified a fundamental shift in attitudes towards sustainability. “Consumers are being hit by shortages and costs. It’s no longer a premium ‘nice-to-have’,” he said. “It’s an issue which is impacting on their health and their ability to afford certain foods.”

Turning to how businesses should be responding, Cope advised: “Based on increasing media coverage and activism, the first thing businesses need to do is to act where you actually need to. Don’t go for the low-hanging fruit, because your customers are increasingly going to know where you need to act.”

Death to the ‘environmentally friendly’ claim

When it comes to the language used in marketing a product, he picked out ‘environmentally friendly’ as an example of phrases that needed to change. “It’s definitely death to ‘environmentally friendly’,” he said, while admitting he was guilty of using this description in the past. “Nothing is ‘environmentally friendly’: everything has to be grown, creates waste, uses energy.”

Language should be about reduced use of resources and impact, Cope recommended. “Consumers are so resource-focused, I’d say a good old alternative to ‘sustainability’ is ‘efficiency’. If your food and drink innovation isn’t efficient, it’s not sustainable. We have to achieve more, or the same, using fewer resources.”

Connect your initiative to a sense of momentum

Businesses can emphasise improvements by putting them in context, he said. “By choosing to buy one product over another, how is that connected to what else is happening in the world?”

He gave the example of national programmes in the US and China, as well as the EU’s European Green Deal, to promote sustainability. These allowed companies to link their innovations to positives such as patriotism, higher unemployment, and so on, he argued. “As a business, the challenge is to connect your worthy initiative to a sense of momentum.”

But context is also important in how companies describe the impact of their changes, said Cope, quoting the example of ‘tonnes of CO2’. “Consumers are telling us they’re increasingly finding sustainability issues difficult to comprehend. They’re also increasingly distrusting companies’ claims.”

So, if changes have led to a reduction in emissions, put this in the context of the average product or your business’s overall emissions, he advised.

Finally, try to soft-sell sustainability,” he concluded. “Talk about the health benefits, about the return on investment, the savviness of the product, and about being ahead of the herd. And then bring in sustainability as a differentiator.”

Cope acknowledged that conflict in Ukraine had played a role in damaging established supply chains. “But this is a new reality for consumers,” he said. “Ukraine is a conflict-induced preview of the price rises you’re going to see anyway from climate change. That’s why many companies are pioneering new, more resilient ingredients.” 

The Mintel research was published in June 2023, and was based on 40,000 consumer interviews across 16 global markets.