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Carrot or stick? How to achieve a sustainable diet

Senior Retail Analyst Toby Pickard looks at the challenges around achieving a sustainable diet

About this article

IGD Analyst Toby Pickard looks at shopper attitudes towards achieving a sustainable diet, the challenges surrounding this and the implications for the food and consumer goods industry.

The foods that companies sell, shoppers buy and consumers eat, all have an impact on our health and environment. Businesses have made considerable progress in providing consumers with healthier products and more recently, many have also offered products that are better for the environment.

However, the food and consumer goods industry faces a mounting challenge, and more needs to be done. The Foresight report on ‘The future of food and farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability’ states that many systems of food production are currently unsustainable. They cannot support a global population heading towards 9 billion by 2050, which is also increasing in prosperity; they require too many of the world’s diminishing resources. From a health perspective, current systems under-deliver nutrients and energy to 1.9 billion people while another one billion are substantially over consuming, resulting in rising obesity and associated diseases.

Assuming that dietary change is required, this represents a long term challenge for our industry. While food businesses can make some progress without involving consumers, ultimately change requires consumer and shopper participation. Openness to increase or decrease consumption of specific foods may be needed in the future, and it will be important to understand the factors affecting shoppers’ willingness to do this.

What shoppers are currently saying

What shoppers are currently sayingWhen looking at shoppers’ willingness to change their behaviour, our ShopperVista research found that most British shoppers don’t feel able to make a difference to certain issues - like global warming or the environment - through the decisions they make when food and grocery shopping.

In contrast, eight in ten shoppers (79%) do feel empowered to make their own positive decisions about healthy eating, up from just 59% in 2007. This could be due to the increased media attention that healthy eating receives as well as the focus on this area from the industry and others.

Simple messages

Shoppers seem most engaged and informed when messages were made simple or have been around for a long time. For example, shoppers were concerned on the issue of fish supply. The agenda seems to have moved on from ‘dolphin friendly’ fish products to one about ‘pole and line caught’ fish, however the underlying message about preserving supply of fish for future generations resonated with shoppers.

However, there were some issues that didn’t resonate as well with shoppers, such as packaging for product preservation and the use of preservatives within fresh produce, even if it meant products would last longer.

There is a role for the industry to try and improve shoppers’ knowledge and understanding around the importance of packaging and preservatives in preventing foods from being wasted. UK households waste over 7m tonnes of food and drink each year – not only does this come at a significant cost, it also has a negative impact on the environment from food that ends up in landfill. Companies that are able to communicate the benefits of packaging and preservatives to shoppers have the potential to gain shopper loyalty.

The stick - choice editing

When it comes to choice editing of products, shoppers are much more open to be choice edited on environmental grounds than on health issues.

Shoppers generally oppose health related choice editing, as they believe they are able to make informed decisions and do not require industry to intervene. On the contrary, shoppers seem more receptive to choice editing on environmental or ethical grounds. However, any choice editing activity should be carefully planned and sensitively tested with shoppers prior to a company-wide roll-out.

The carrot - inspire them

Shoppers have implied that they are willing to be informed, educated and even limited on some things to try and be healthier and more sustainable, but to truly win the hearts and minds of shoppers, the industry has a job to inspire them to change behaviour.

The challenge for industry is to create a clear overarching coherent narrative that shoppers can grasp around environmental and health issues.


1. 1,035 shoppers were questioned during 7-8 August 2013 and four focus group sessions were held

2. Research is taken from IGD report Sustainable diets: Helping shoppers which is available for free at


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