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Study finds the environment low on the consumer agenda

By Ahmed ElAmin , 23-Nov-2007

Consumers do not seem to consider environmental and sustainability issues when purchasing food and drink, according to a UK government study released today.

The report gives the lie to recent efforts by major processors and retailers to appeal to so-called "conscious consumers" by changing their sourcing, processing and business practices relating to economic, social and environmental issues. However the study is a preliminary step toward launching campaigns to change consumer's behaviour toward purchasing products from processors that have invested in such programmes as water conservation, pollution reduction and ethical sourcing. The study, conducted by Opinion Leader on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), specifically polled consumers about their purchasing decisions relating to food and sustainability issues. "Sustainable consumption and production of food are not the kinds of issues which participants think about," the final report states. "A small minority of the more environmentally aware participants actively consider issues such as seasonality and supporting local farmers. However, this is not necessarily driven by a desire to consume food sustainably - some prefer to purchase seasonally for taste reasons." As a result, food purchasing is a difficult area in which to intervene to encourage more sustainable behaviour, Opinion Leader concludes. In order to promote consumer awareness Defra said it has identified five key behaviour goals it would like to influence. These are:

  • Switching to a diet with lower environmental and social impacts;
  • Wasting less food in the home;
  • Avoid fishing from uncertified or unsustainable stocks;
  • Switching to more seasonal and local food; and,
  • Increasing consumption of organic or certified / assured food and drink (including Fairtrade).

"The way that participants purchase food is a complex process involving many influencing factors, including convenience, cost, health, habit, offers, taste and availability," the report stated. "Similarly, participants' aspirations are not straightforward and often contradictory, influenced by three key drivers -- health, quality and indulgence." Of the five goals, the options receiving the most positive response are those that require a change in purchasing habits rather than a change in people's diets, the analysts stated. "Participants are most open to changing their behaviour to waste less food and buy more seasonal and local food, immediately," Opinion Leader stated. "There is also a willingness to buy more organic, certified or assured food and some commitment to increase the purchase of fish from certified stocks, but these have more niche appeal. Eating a lower impact diet is the least acceptable of the five goals." Based on the findings, Opinion Leader's advises Defra to:

  • Use existing health and taste levers to achieve behaviour change;
  • Develop information based on life-cycle to lay out all the impacts of wasting food;
  • Intervene with supermarkets to reduce offers which encourage increased purchasing;
  • Encourage supermarkets to prioritise stocking and promoting seasonal, local produce;
  • Ask supermarkets to make organic, certified and assured schemes clearly visible, accessible and cost-neutral, to promote quality meat and diary products - focusing on quality over quantity;
  • Support local outlets and markets for farm produce;
  • Accredit organic, certified and assured schemes and promote them;
  • Consider means of improving the cost of certified options - or the provision of tax breaks;
  • Focus on one certification scheme and explicitly promote this;
  • Intervene with suppliers and processors to ensure sustainable produce;
  • Promote local fish; and,
  • Conduct further research with consumers.

Across the EU, food and drink production and consumption is one of the highest contributors to environmental impact, the report noted. About one-third of households' total environmental impacts can be related to food and drink consumption according to a 2002 study commissioned by Denmark's government. "However, the largest impact is indirect - that is under the control of the consumer -- as it is incurred during food production and processing," Defra stated in the report. "Direct negative environmental effects of food and drink consumption are on an upward trend, that is travel to shops, storing and cooking, and waste." The study on the food sector is one of five released today as Defra attempts to develop a programme to raise consumer awareness of sustainability issues. The five independent reports include those polling consumers about their attitudes toward energy consumption, finance and investment, leisure and tourism, and transport. "The research also shows that many myths surround public understanding of what they can do to reduce their impact on the environment," Defra stated in summary. "These include an assumption that 'good' daily behaviour legitimises occasional 'bad' behaviour and that pro-environmental behaviour often involves higher cost and poorer quality." Earlier this month Nestlé, Bunge, Danisco, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Tyson Foods became the first food processors to join a programme to develop global reporting standards on sustainability projects in the sector. The four joined the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). All have extensive sustainability programmes already underway, including projects on water and forest conservation, pollution controls and ethical sourcing. Food processors are increasingly seeking to communicate the progress of such programmes, launched as a means of meeting hightened consumer awareness of issues general grouped under the 'sustainability' label.

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