Interest in sustainability has skyrocketed in recent years. As consumers, manufacturers, and regulators seek to shrink their environmental and social footprint, sustainability is fast becoming a priority for many.
Many consumers view brands as partners in creating positive environmental change, according to the results of a survey by The Economist which showed that since 2018, global online searches for sustainable goods have grown by 71%.
While the importance of sustainability is clear, food businesses often encounter challenges when attempting to embed it into their operations and offerings. At F&A Next in May, two industry leaders shared best practise examples for embedding sustainability into food businesses and building environmentally friendly brands.
Environmental impact should be quantifiable and measurable
By directly linking business activities and performance to key sustainability metrics, brands can build loyalty and commitment around their environmental socio-political goals, Paul Baisier, chief research & development officer at Belgian-based B2B bakery platform Puratos suggested.
To ensure sustainability remains a strategic priority at Puratos, a cross-functional sustainability department leads the implementation of initiatives internally across teams, he said.
Via a joint venture with French foodtech startup Glimpact, the company is taking a holistic approach to embed sustainability throughout its end-to-end supply chain. Puratos has developed a digital tool which models the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) - a method developed by the European scientific community in line with the European Green Deal.
The app quantifies the impact of individual ingredients through to the end-product and recommends actions to make products more sustainable at all lifecycle stages. This allows manufacturers to make more informed decisions about raw materials, processes, and suppliers.
“We aim to be science-based and data driven so we know exactly what impact we’re having […] we then force ourselves to do the right thing,” Verbakel said.
Adopting a science-based and data-driven approach helps Puratos to measure the impact and traceability of its sustainability efforts and to avoid issues such as greenwashing, he explained.
Target the average consumer
A leading global plant-based food manufacturer, Dutch CPG company Upfield aims to provide consumers with alternatives to products such as butter, milk, and cheese that directly compete with traditional dairy products on metrics such as taste, texture, and functionality.
Operating a fully plant-based strategy has been instrumental in helping the brand achieve its ambitious sustainability objectives, which include increasing the use of plant-based and natural ingredients from around 97% to 100% in the coming years, said John Verbakel, chief research & development officer at Upfield.
“We want the consumer to skip the cow and get the same product but, in a plant-based format,” he said.
By offering alternative products that are healthier and more sustainable than traditional dairy products yet are competitively priced, Upfield aims to appeal to a broad consumer base, rather than exclusively targeting niche markets such as vegan or lactose-free.
“To make consumers switch and do the right thing for the plant, taste and performance are most important […] Our products need to be the same as the dairy products, and so all innovations are geared towards doing that,” Verbakel said.
“Once you have that, you have a great product that’s healthier, more sustainable, and cheaper [than the original]. And that’s when the consumer will switch.”
Do not compromise on taste and indulgence
When innovating to improve the sustainability of products, both Baisier and Verbakel agreed that taste and texture remain key in satisfying consumer appeal and demand. Although consumer awareness about the wider impact of food is increasing, taste and price continually rank top when it comes to making decisions at the supermarket.
“Taste and texture are a prerequisite for consumers to choose products and are a minimum to have. Never compromise on the satisfaction and indulgence of a product,” Baisier said.
When purchasing sustainable, plant-based alternatives, consumers seek products that are equally as indulgent and satisfying as their animal-based counterparts. Striking the right balance between sustainability and sensory appeal is for many brands a challenge but is often crucial for success as consumers prove unwilling to compromise on taste.
To achieve this balance, Upfield invests in four key innovation areas: flavour, oils and fats, plant protein, and water structure hydrocolloids. By ensuring that taste and texture are on par, the brand aims to bridge the gap between plant-based alternatives and dairy products for the everyday consumer.
Keep labels clean
Aside from improving the environmental footprint of products, sustainability innovation can offer opportunities for new functionalities of ingredients and products.
Maintaining a clean label on alternative products however should always remain front of mind for food manufacturers, Baisier said.
“It’s essential to consider that alternative doesn’t become full of additives, as the consumer [will no longer] connect with the product,” he said.
Technology will be instrumental in achieving these goals and will require higher levels of investment in future, Baisier said.