The environmental concerns of shoppers

Date : 09 August 2011
The environmental concerns of shoppers

The environmental debate often focuses on climate change, driven over recent years by high profile events such as the Copenhagen and Cancun summits.

Climate change opinions

Despite the ongoing debate about climate change, shoppers’ opinions hardly changed between 2009 and 2011, as these findings from IGD's report, Environmental Sustainability - How to Engage Shoppers, shows:

Opinion about climate change or global warming

Opinion about climate change Graph

Source: Environmental Sustainability, June 2011

Over six in ten (62%) shoppers believe that the climate is changing and are concerned about it, while three in ten (31%) remain dismissive, exactly matching the levels recorded in 2009. However, there is slightly more pessimism regarding mankind’s collective ability to reverse climate change than before, with those regarding it as irreversible rising slightly, at the expense of those viewing it as potentially solvable.

Bigger environmental concerns

While it sometimes dominates the headlines, climate change is only one aspect of environmental sustainability. In fact, other factors are more important to shoppers when thinking about the environmental impact of food and grocery production, distribution and consumption.

What concerns you about the impact of food and groceries on the environment?

What concerns you about the impact of food and groceries on the environment graph

Source: Environmental Sustainability, June 2011

Waste and wildlife are bigger environmental concerns than climate change among grocery shoppers.

Waste

The amount of waste created by food and groceries is the main environmental concern among shoppers. When we spoke to shoppers in focus groups and accompanied shopping trips, it became clear that shoppers’ concerns include up to three types of waste.

Firstly, primary packaging waste, such as single-use plastic carrier bags, excessively packaged items, and plastic. Carrier bags, and to a lesser extent stories about excessive packaging, have received a lot of media attention, which could help to explain why they are at the front of shoppers' minds.

Domestic food waste is another common concern. Various causes of food waste are identified by shoppers, including complaints directed at companies, such as the lack of smaller pack sizes for certain items, and pricing  that overly encourages unnecessary bulk purchasing. But shoppers acknowledge that they themselves also cause a lot of waste through their own lack of food planning and poor record in using leftovers.

Waste is the main environmental concern of shoppers

In addition, some shoppers cite concern for waste within the supply chain, including references to secondary packaging and the disposal of misshapen, but perfectly edible, fruit and vegetables. One shopper, for example, remarked: “Bananas come in these huge boxes, filled with this blue shrink-wrap stuff.”

Wildlife

Damage to wildlife and natural habits, such as rainforest destruction, threatened species and water pollution, ranks as the second highest environmental concern among grocery shoppers. This high priority is somewhat contrary to what shoppers report in their buying habits. According to ShopperVista, IGD’s monthly monitor of British grocery shopper sentiment, only 9% of shoppers recall specifically buying products from companies focused on protecting wildlife and nature in the past month (June 2011).

This gap is either indicative of a large disconnect between shoppers’ attitudes and their actions, a lack of product alternatives that clearly address this concern, or both.

Resources

Half (52%) of shoppers are concerned about the amount of resources left for future production of food and groceries, such as oil supplies, usable farmland and fishing stocks. Many of them are concerned that future food productivity will be severely hampered by mounting environmental damage.

Farm productivity is top of mind for some shoppers, with intensive farming techniques and use of chemicals blamed for degrading soil quality some of the main worries, while others mention depleting fish stocks. One shopper remarked: “I’ve heard that cod and tuna stocks are gradually disappearing.”

Landscape

Almost half (46%) of shoppers register some concern for the impact that the food and grocery industry has on the landscape, including removing hedgerows and the impact from edge of town shopping developments.

Climate change

While around six in ten shoppers are at least somewhat concerned about the impact of groceries on climate change specifically, they do not rate this as one of their biggest environmental issues. The relatively low priority is perhaps because climatic effects are relatively intangible, compared to waste, wildlife, resources and landscape, all of which are more physical and visible in nature.

Environmental credentials on display at the M&S Ecclesall Road store in Sheffield

Some of those who recognise climate change as a priority issue do so because they view carbon as a proxy for the total environmental impact of a product, citing it as “a catch all” type measure.

Engaging shoppers

Many food and grocery companies across the supply chain are committed to sustainability, and are taking action to reduce their environmental impact. At last year’s IGD Convention, 86% of delegates said that their business was strongly committed to sustainability.

To generate a return on this investment, it will become increasingly important for grocery companies to identify ways of converting shoppers’ environmental concerns into new shopping habits.

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