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Selling Sustainability? In Search of the Retail Business Case for Sustainable Diets

15 October 2012

This report presents the results of a research exercise commissioned by WWF and conducted by Brook Lyndhurst during the latter part of 2011 and early part of 2012. The research was designed to investigate the business case for retailers to further support and promote sustainable diets.

The idea of ‘sustainable diets’ highlights the unsustainable nature of current consumption patterns.

In principle, a sustainable diet is one that minimises environmental damage, supports a resilient farming and food industry and ensures that people eat a healthy and nutritionally-balanced array of foods.

In practice, however, the complexities of defining a sustainable diet which captures temporal and spatial variance in the sustainability impacts of food production and consumption, while navigating through the trade-offs that exist between different sustainability indicators, are considerable. Moreover, actions that may be required to bring about widespread adoption of sustainable diets are manifold and distributed among multiple stakeholders.

Previous research has made important strides towards defining a sustainable diet and identifying actions to realise more sustainable patterns of food consumption. For example, WWF’s ‘Livewell Plate’1 outlines guidance for achieving a varied and nutritionally-balanced diet up to 2020, which would also meet greenhouse gas emission targets set out in WWF’s One Planet Food strategy.

Following on from this work, the results presented in this report are the product of research commissioned by WWF-UK and undertaken by Brook Lyndhurst, to explore the retail business case for supporting and promoting sustainable diets. This research forms part of a larger programme of work funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, which was designed to challenge the policy obstacles to sustainable food consumption and foster a constructive dialogue between stakeholders about delivering more sustainable patterns of food consumption.

Specifically the research undertaken by Brook Lyndhurst aimed to identify existing actions by retailers to encourage and enable consumers to adopt more sustainable diets, and to develop a convincing retail business case for further action.

A desk-based review and a series of interviews with senior retail representatives and academics revealed a surprising number of existing initiatives that could be said to broadly support more sustainable patterns of food consumption. Nonetheless, the findings showed that these activities are piecemeal – currently lacking support from overarching corporate policies or commitments that aim to address sustainable diets.

By understanding retail processes for identifying and developing new sustainability initiatives, it became clear that a number of key ingredients are required to underpin such action:

  • Strong scientific evidence and political consensus that a problem exists because of the types of food people are eating.
  • Availability of a clear solution to the problem that can be reasonably implemented by retailers.
  • Stakeholder support for the chosen solution.
  • Action by competitors to address the problem (either acting to pressurise some retailers to act, or encouraging others to seize first mover advantage by tackling the problem early on).
  • Consumer understanding and interest in the issue to be addressed.

We developed four near-to-real-world case study examples, exploring a range of sustainability iniatives that could be implemented by retailers in the future. Through these, it was commonly identified that a priority area for development in the short term was the opportunity for collective action to drive the uptake of fruit and vegetables in a much wider range of meal formats and occasions.

Nevertheless, we identified key barriers that are currently preventing more widespread action on sustainable diets:

  • Reputational risks associated with providing consumers with advice and information about sustainable diets in the absence of a universally agreed definition among stakeholders.
  • Commercial disbenefits of shifting consumption patterns against the grain of consumer demand in the absence of policy requirements to act.
  • Absence of market opportunities for developing more sustainable product lines because of limited consumer demand for such products.
  • Danger of confusing or alienating consumers by engaging with them on the issue of sustainable diets too soon, in case there’s a need to reframe the issue at a later date in the face of emerging scientific evidence or political position on the issue.

These barriers also meant that the exercise to develop a convincing business case for further action by retailers was unrealistic at the present time. These findings suggest that two challenges urgently need to be addressed by all stakeholders involved in dialogue about sustainable diets:

  • To work quickly to establish a consensus-based definition of a sustainable diet.
  • To accelerate any and all changes in consumer sentiment that would encourage and enable retailers to move forward quickly.

Retailers, government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are all implicated in these objectives. Specifically, government should:

  • Lead the development of a clear definition of a sustainable diet as a priority, in conjunction with other stakeholders, and convert this definition into specific dietary guidance.
  • Evaluate the full suite of policy tools available to facilitate changes in consumption patterns and use this insight to outline specific policy objectives that implicate the business sector (including retail and food service).
  • Identify policy measures to buffer negative industry impacts that might arise from wholesale changes in diets as a result of action by retailers and food service businesses.

To support these actions, NGOs should work to build consensus between government, retailers and other stakeholders by:

  • Mapping competing discourses on sustainable diets and developing appropriate engagement strategies for different interested parties.
  • Formulating a clear position on sustainable diets and building a united front with other interested parties to lobby government and the retail sector more effectively.
  • Working with retailers to identify commercially viable solutions to sustainability issues.
  • Involving other components of the food sector (notably food service) in discussions about what actions should be taken to complement action by the retail sector.
  • Building alliances with other food influencers, such as celebrity chefs and the media, to raise the profile of sustainable diets and reduce contradictory messaging.

Retailers also have a central role to play in:

  • Monitoring and influencing consumer sentiment with respect to sustainable diets, and working with other stakeholders to do this.
  • Actively participating in discussions about sustainable diet, rather than watching and waiting for others’ views to emerge.
  • Sharing their knowledge and experience of influencing consumption behaviours with respect to sustainability to inform the development of future policy interventions, including ones that will affect the commercial viability of different options.
  • Stimulating the development of new sustainability initiatives internally by raising the profile of the agenda across the business.
  • Encouraging innovation among suppliers to develop a wider range of more sustainable product offerings.

The issue of retailers influencing consumers is, perhaps, the most challenging. In broad policy terms, consumer sovereignty remains paramount – at national and international level. Retailers are acutely conscious of the fact that, unless they keep their customers ‘happy’, then market share, profits and reputation can all suffer. Incremental change is, from such a perspective, the best that can be hoped for.

Conversely, retailers are in a unique position to shape the consumer experience, to control what is and what is not made available, to sell not just products but lifestyles. Upon them rests a very considerable responsibility. Individual consumers may ‘want’ an environmentally friendly option; governments and NGOs may hope for the same; but it is, in the end, retailers who are at the heart of the UK’s food system. There may not yet be a business case for sustainable diets that meets retailer requirements; but unless and until retailers make it straightforward for consumers to buy a sustainable diet, the prospects for radical change are limited.

In summary, the development and promotion of ‘sustainable diets’ represents a big challenge. Existing actions and dialogue on the issue, however, suggest there’s a great deal of good will on which to build. By retailers, government and NGOs working synergistically we’ll be able to build consensus and move forward.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

October 2012

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