Are you prepared for the shift in consumer demands?
- Advancing greenhouse gas (GHG) levels.
- Accelerating impacts of climate change.
- Our GHG emission-heavy meat and agricultural production system.
- Evolving consumer expectations and food choices linked to climate outcomes.
- Global food scarcity.
- Are all these issues inter-connected? Yes.
- Is the consumer about to grasp this and connect these dots?
- Food, beverage and lifestyle categories are ground zero on a major culture shift now underway that redefines the meaning of sustainability and will recast the value proposition for nearly every brand in the business.
Can you see it coming?
You already know sustainability has been a growing issue for consumers. However, as a purchase consideration sustainability is morphing to focus on climate threat impacts. This will change the value proposition and strength vs. weakness of brands both CPG and retail. A new class of Eco-Sumer is emerging that sees the checkout counter as a voting booth to signal their demand for change and flag their activism on these vital quality of life issues. Their significant purchasing power will put pressure on companies to act. Are they on your strategic planning radar?
The early stages of change
Sustainability has moved past its teenage years and is maturing. In 2018 Nielsen predicted consumers would spend $150 billion on “eco-friendly” products by 2021. However, the sands of adoption are shifting underneath as the rapidly rising consumer concern about agriculture and food production’s link to GHG emissions gets traction.
Soon the consumer will come to understand that agriculture is the second leading producer of greenhouse gas. Specifically, meat production accounts for 65 percent of the world’s nitrous oxide, a gas with a global warming impact 296 times greater per pound than carbon dioxide. What’s more, total emissions from agriculture are forecasted to grow 80 percent by 2050 due to a significant increase in demand for meat and dairy products.
Emergent’s research barometer is tracking the evolution and expansion of consumer sentiment on sustainability. This issue increasingly has bearing on brand value propositions. The consumer view of sustainability’s relevance has already expanded to include assessments of transparency, ingredient sourcing, food safety, animal welfare, employee treatment and now carbon footprint. Important for you to consider: this is quickly becoming a standard yardstick of product and retail experience quality.
Culture shift leads to behavior shift
According to Forrester research, half of U.S. adults are operating now in various shades of green and are demanding accountability from brands and retailers, while 32 percent of consumers are going out of their way to purchase brands that are dedicated to reducing climate impact.
Meanwhile the Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 72 percent of consumers are concerned about climate chaos and 40 percent are even fearful of it. The Pandemic has shined a spotlight on vulnerability between human health and the ongoing destruction of our wildlife eco-system which helps tamp down disease spread as more and more land is repurposed for industrial agriculture and meat production. Rainforest, the world’s largest carbon sink, is disappearing at the rate of an acre a second for this reason.
A 2019 Kearney study concluded 71 percent of consumers take protecting the environment into consideration when shopping. By mid 2020 that number had run up to 83 percent. With increased awareness of our food systems’ culpability in climate threat, consumers will be looking for guidance and direction from brands on their efforts to mitigate the problem.
Increasingly popular “Net Zero” commitments are only the beginning. Consumers will soon begin to scrutinize those moves, looking for consistency across the waterfront of company operations not only on energy and water use, but also how the food ingredient supply chain is factored into carbon footprint.
- Climate and sustainability initiatives, commitments, practices and standards are about to become a launch pad for business competitive advantage.
The coming moment of truth: shopping friction
How do brands and retailers help consumers make a sustainability decision? There is no credible mechanism for determining how climate positive a brand or retailer is. When rules are drawn up internally by companies, the metrics applied around different definitions of climate impact will inevitably vary brand to brand.
Lack of any central oversight or common benchmarks makes consistency nearly impossible to achieve. Consumers are going to have a hard time assessing which claims are meaningful from those that are not. When a best practices vacuum like this exists, there will always be third parties wading in to fill it. Pundits and self-styled experts will offer their views on good vs. bad and so the race to secure credible guidance will begin.
- We know consumer expectations are already on the rise. Now is the time to create a set of industry-wide standards on carbon footprint and define which elements of performance need to be included in assessing climate impact scores.
First step: holistic analysis
This isn’t just about clean energy. Or mitigating water resource over-use. A 360-degree evaluation will be required to consider supply chain, ingredients standards, operations, manufacturing, company culture, employee policies, brand higher purpose, cause relationships, plus the communication of standards to stakeholders, consumers, retailers and investors.
Investor and regulatory change coming
The Kearney study also revealed that 77 percent of investors now see climate change as a consideration in their valuation decisions. Further 79 percent of investors believe that regulatory changes will be a factor in their decision-making over the next three years.
There’s no question the new Administration is making climate a top priority and public policy will favor companies that get ahead of this. The Securities and Exchange Commission has already set up a task force to monitor ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) misconduct of publicly traded companies. At some point there will be regulations aimed directly at disclosing emissions.
Where to go from here
It’s time for the Climate Audit, a thorough evaluation of company operations, good and bad, that contribute to (or remove) emissions either directly or through vendors, distribution and supply chain.
- Greenwashing is going to be a key area of vulnerability for organizations that take a half-baked stance on emissions and simply try to ride the wave of consumer sentiment by invoking climate faithfulness. Half measures are likely to be exposed so it is important to get it right and leave no stone unturned in evaluating where emissions might come from and how best to turn it down or off.
The rationale for these changes and shifts is compelling:
“Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane levels in the atmosphere continued to rise in 2020, with CO2 level reaching their highest point in 3.6 million years, according to calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The barrier was broken despite a reduction in expected emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” – Jordan Freiman, CBS News
This CBS report was startling given the slow-down in commuting and travel due to the pandemic. It underscores that GHG emissions from fossil-fueled transportation are still only a portion of contributing factors to global warming. Agriculture is a big one and getting bigger. This revelation will put food choice at the center of the bull’s eye for consumers who use their wallets and brand preferences to vote their values.
If you find this conversation meaningful and would like to discuss how climate impact can be properly and successfully addressed in your organization, use this link to open a conversation.
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Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact Bob@Emergent-Comm.com and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.