Sustainability needs to be an unbroken promise to the consumer

Written by Maeve Governey - July 2018

Maeve Governey looks at how brands in the food and drinks industry are reacting to the rise of sustainability as a key driver of consumer behaviour. She recommends that environment needs to become a core value in an organisation with substantive and measurable outcomes if the communications message is to be authentic for the consumer. 

Anyone working in the food and drinks industry in Ireland and elsewhere is used to feeling the pressure. It’s an industry that continuously needs to adapt and reinvent itself in response to changing consumer behaviour.

Consumer behaviour can be a fickle thing.  Many things from economic, regulatory and political factors to social and cultural forces can influence it. It is part emotional, part circumstantial. This is what makes it hard to predict.

Over the past decade alone, the Irish food and drinks industry has been affected by numerous issues such as the recession, consumer confidence, changes in shopper behaviour, the rise of obesity, the anti-sugar movement, advertising to children, labelling regulation, e-commerce, currency changes, Brexit and much more.

That’s not to mention the myriad of consumer trends towards value added, artisan, natural, organic and free-from products, as well as the desire for healthier and, yet even more convenient, meal solutions. The industry has responded to these demands through innovation, reformulation and resilience.

But the latest issue to take the industry by storm is one that has been around for a very long time. It is the issue of the impact that human behaviour is having on our environment. This has been a seriously hot topic for the likes of energy providers, the motor industry and more for many years.

The food and drinks industry has always given it consideration too. Research shows that Irish consumers care about the environment and like the products they buy and consume to have a positive environmental profile. They also believe that manufacturers have a responsibility in ensuring their products are environmentally conscious. From an export perspective, the food and drinks industry has been particularly successful in leveraging Ireland’s green and natural credentials through Origin Green, Ireland’s unique food and drink sustainability programme.

But since 2017, attention on single use plastic packaging in the food sector in particular has escalated at a rate that has taken even the most environmentally conscious by surprise. Several factors have contributed to this, but none more so than David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series in which he draws attention to the impact that our throwaway culture is having on ocean marine life. The series struck a chord with the British public, resulting in an outcry against plastic pollution.

This outcry had considerable influence here in Ireland too and was compounded by the timing of China’s ban on imports of material for recycling. Environment has become a hot topic for all media outlets across online and traditional, both broadcast and print. From a legislative perspective, the Green Party’s Waste Reduction Bill 2017 and the EU’s proposal to ban single use plastic products are also adding to the discourse.

So how are brands in the food industry reacting? Big names like McDonald’s and Wetherspoons have stepped ahead of any legislative proposals and announced a ban on plastic straws in their chains across Ireland and the UK. Irish coffee chain, Insomnia has also announced the introduction of compostable coffee cups and paper straws across their outlets and venues like Croke Park have joined the crusade. Retailers like Aldi have pledged that 100% of their own-brand packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022.  These are just some examples of brands and organisations that are adding their names to a list that is growing day by day. It seems that, at the very least, sustainable packaging for the food sector is on the fastest route to becoming standard.

From an Irish perspective, this heightened interest in sustainability represents a great opportunity. It fits perfectly into our goal of becoming a world leader in sustainable food production. By incorporating sustainability into their innovation pipelines, Irish food and drinks producers can add another string to their bow of producing natural, high quality products.

However, for that message to be authentic, sustainability needs to become a core value within an organisation. Any communications campaign to support a sustainability message must have evidence of substantive and measurable improvements for the environment. Rather than being a reaction to the rising tide of events, sustainability needs to be an unbroken promise to the consumer. Because the problem of the impact that human beings are having on the environment isn’t going away any time soon.

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