Knowledge for better food systems

FCRN Blogs

Taking Stock on Sustainable Diets

July 14, 2015
Jon Woolven

The FCRN invites Jon Woolven, Strategy and Innovation Director at the food and consumer goods industry research and training charity IGD, and also an FCRN Advisory Board Member, to provide an industry perspective on sustainable diets and potential ways forward.  He offers his thoughts below.


FCRN takes a strong interest in sustainable diets and so does IGD. It’s a vital, if complex, part of the sustainability equation, where health, the environment, social equity and the economy knit together.

The FCRN invites Jon Woolven, Strategy and Innovation Director at the food and consumer goods industry research and training charity IGD, and also an FCRN Advisory Board Member, to provide an industry perspective on sustainable diets and potential ways forward.  He offers his thoughts below.


FCRN takes a strong interest in sustainable diets and so does IGD. It’s a vital, if complex, part of the sustainability equation, where health, the environment, social equity and the economy knit together.

I’ve been asked to give a view on the state of progress. Are we making meaningful headway in this area or are we still in the starting blocks?

IGD’s main areas of interest are consumers and industry, so I’ll look at the question through both of these viewpoints.  

First, let’s take a step back. Few subjects attract as much heated debate as sustainability and yet almost everyone supports its central ambition: to leave things in good shape for future generations.

IGD’s research shows that most members of the public are willing to make a contribution to this with these three provisos:

  • That they understand the need;
  • They know how to contribute;
  • And the personal sacrifice isn’t too painful.

Photo credit: FCRN member Nick Saltmarsh via FlickrFrom a UK vantage point, we’ve seen strong progress over the last ten years in those parts of the sustainability agenda that meet these conditions. An example is food waste where figures from WRAP show a substantial drop. Also, Fairtrade has grown considerably and there’s broad awareness of the problem of over-fishing. 71% of people agree we shouldn’t be running down fish stocks even if that limits our choice.

However, the concept of sustainable diets is in its relative infancy and there’s much to do to bring the public on board. Only 21% of shoppers believe they can have any influence on climate change through their food shopping choices. For most people, the need hasn’t been explained, they’re not clear on how to contribute and if they were, the sacrifices could feel painful.

Importantly though, there is plenty of latent interest. From IGD's ShopperVista survey, 75% of shoppers say they would welcome inspiration to make more healthy and ethical choices.

IGD's free report on consumer attitudes to sustainable diets is available here.

Meanwhile, the food industry remains committed to sustainability.

IGD’s Annual Convention attracts some 700 food industry leaders and we pose questions to the audience, answered anonymously through voting devices. It’s a good way to establish what people really think.

When we last tested their attitudes to sustainability in October 2013 the responses were:

  • Never a priority – 9%
  • On the back burner – 5%
  • Steady commitment – 48%
  • Gets more attention each year – 38%

This high level of commitment shouldn’t come as a surprise. Every responsible senior manager wants their company to endure and there’s widespread recognition of the many threats to food security. At IGD, we itemised 19 sources of food security risk in our 2013 assessment.

Of course, even the biggest companies can’t work meaningfully on 19 fronts at once. They have to prioritise and that includes paying constant attention to financial sustainability … i.e. for them, staying in business!

Health and diet is a perennial ‘hot topic’ for industry. Again, there are some examples of recent progress including the reduction of salt and trans fats in the UK diet, although obesity has been an intractable problem so far, and more interventions are needed.    

Most food companies recognise the need to link health and diet with other elements of sustainability. Many are willing to join discussions on this and contribute to the building of knowledge. IGD’s sustainable diet group consists of 11 major businesses.

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via FlickrMost companies are also prepared to help shoppers make informed, sustainable choices, as with fish and paper products, but they have strong preferences about how to do this.

They prefer:

  • Simple messages (e.g. ‘this is a sustainable fish’) over complex ones (e.g. ‘this has an environmental footprint score of 36%’)
  • Positive messages (e.g. ‘this is a Fairtrade product’) over negative ones (e.g. ‘limit your consumption of this’)
  • Confident messages that don’t change over time.

Looking to the future, companies will keep improving the nutritional value and sustainability of their products, working through their supply chains. This way, more products could qualify unequivocally to be part of a sustainable diet.

As knowledge builds, companies will be ready to inform and sometimes inspire consumers to make sustainable choices but this needs to be around commonly agreed standards.  

Using price as a way to incentivise these choices is a potentially powerful stimulant but is tricky territory. Companies are strictly forbidden from setting prices collectively, however noble their motivations and anyone unilaterally pricing above competitors rapidly loses custom.

This doesn’t prevent companies working to lower the price of healthy and sustainable foods and supporting them through promotions. The ultimate solution though, would be to reframe the market by putting a proper value on natural capital. Provided this can be done in an even-handed and accurate way, it could receive broad acceptance by companies because it will help them to protect their future.   

Photo credit: Katherine Hala via Flickr

A further possible tactic is choice editing: removing unsustainable products from sale. UK companies have done this for certain endangered fish species and carried most shoppers with them. Gaining this support is essential, otherwise people simply switch to a different vendor and so the case has to be clear cut.

Surveying all this evidence, although there are plenty of barriers still to surmount, I’m confident that we are making significant progress on sustainable diets. Momentum is building and there’s alignment around the need to leave a positive legacy, even if the vision of final success and the mechanics of how to get there will be a long running debate.   

FCRN plays two vital roles here: extending the knowledge base and helping to build common ground. We’re pleased to play an active part.  


If you have any thoughts about this article we’d be really keen to hear your comments.  Share your views in the comments box below. You will need to be signed in as a member to do so.  Contact us if you have any problems.  We’re particularly interested to hear your views about Jon’s analysis of the situation on the UK, on further actions needed and on food industry progress / lack of progress outside the UK.  Any additional thoughts about the role of the FCRN would also be most welcome.

See also the FCRN paper What is a sustainable healthy diet and the recent report Policies and actions to shift eating patterns: What works?  You can also read blog-posts on the new Swedish dietary guidelines: Environmental concerns now in Sweden’s newly launched dietary guidelines, and the US dietary guidelines: Who will win in the battle over sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, science or special interests?, and  U.S. Dietary Guidelines Report – What's the Fuss Over Sustainability?

Comments

Will Nicholson's picture
Submitted by Will Nicholson on

Hi Jon

Interesting to read.  Have you seen any increase in willingness to eat less meat?  I am interested in trends of consumer behaviour in terms of :

1. eating less meat per meal (so, buying smaller amounts of meat or making meat purchases last for more than one meal)

2. eating non-meat meals more often (meatfree mondays etc)

To me, these are different behaviours, and mean different shopping attitudes.  And they can have different impacts in terms of sustainability.  There seems a lot of focus on meatfree, but less so on "less meat on the plate"?

In Norway, where I work, research was done a couple of years ago, and awareness about the role of meat consumption in terms of the environment was very low.  If awareness has increased recently in the UK, how has this translated into behaviour?

Many thanks,

Will Nicholson

www.intolife.no

www.intofood.no

Jon Woolven's picture
Submitted by Jon Woolven (not verified) on

Thanks Will

UK meat consumption per person has been trending downwards slightly and one of the explanations is the greater availability and attractiveness of vegetarian alternatives. When we last asked consumers, a high proportion said they aspired to eating less but better quality meat in their diet ... although aspiration and actual behaviour often differ of course!

Awareness of the link between meat consumption and the environment isn't high in the UK either and health is a much bigger driver of dietary aspirations. 

One UK based organisation that studies meat consumption in depth is the Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board (AHDB). They would have more detailed data relating to your question that I do.  

Jon

 

 

calvinheim's picture
Submitted by calvinheim (not verified) on

Hi Jon,

"Most companies are also prepared to help shoppers make informed, sustainable choices, as with fish and paper products, but they have strong preferences about how to do this."

What is the preference of most companies with regards to the placement, distribution, and number of simple informative messages?

Obviously, the label and/or packaging is a great place to put some of the simpler messages intended to guide on-the-spot decision making. But the label or packaging space may not be able to fit a larger number of simple messages needed to transcend individual food choices to inform a separate, cohesive, overall meal plan -- a meal plan that conforms to externally supplied limits, rules, and guidelines not set by the food company (which, naturally, abhors negative messages on their product) but by an individual's needs and preferences. In sum, how do most companies view consumer communications beyond the label or packaging?

For example, not all food products list complete nutritional profiles on their label or packaging, so the end eater often must collect more information from other sources if they want to get better feedback on their food choices in the context of a complete set of nutritional guidelines. Some of the nutritional information may be placed on the label. The rest may be distributed through popular online nutritional databases. In the end, the consumer will have some number of messages to inform their overall meal plan. This example may or may not actually reflect the realized and unrealized preferences of most food companies, so I defer to your informed view on their view of things.

Sincerely,

Calvin Heim

Jon Woolven's picture
Submitted by Jon Woolven (not verified) on

Thanks Calvin

For retailers, there's always the option for signs and leaflets in store, for instance to explain Marine Stewardship Council standards for sustainable fishing. However, you're right to draw attention to total diet planning and here the opportunity, at least in theory, is for smart devices to compile nutrition data across a range of products and perhaps guide shopping choices based on nutritional targets.

This is an exciting vision but the practicalities of making it work accurately are daunting. For instance, if you buy a bag of sugar, how is any device to know the number of servings it will be used for? Perhaps some standards, based on average consumption rates, will emerge over time but I don't believe this is imminent.

Jon  

Add new comment

Member input

Plain text

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.