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Sustainability less influential than cost on consumer habits: study

By Jane Byrne , 15-Sep-2008

A new survey has found cost, quality and healthiness influence consumers’ purchasing choices to a much greater degree than environmental factors.

The research, undertaken by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), focused on whether consumers were willing to pay more for products produced in a sustainable way with the findings showing that only ten per cent of shoppers were motivated to buy products based on how ‘green’ they were.

“The majority of those likely to spend more [on products produced in a sustainable way] would only spend ‘a little more’ rather than ‘a lot more’. This group tended to be younger (25-54 years), female, with higher grocery spends, those from social grade ABC1, those living in rural areas and those who shop at Marks and Spencers or Waitrose,” claims the study.

Older consumers

According to the research, respondents aged 55 or older are more likely than those aged 16-34 to consider the following issues:

  • Seasonality of food (considered by 23 per cent of those aged 55+ compared with 12 per cent of those aged 16-34)
  • Free range (considered by 42 per cent of those aged 55+ compared with 32 per cent of those aged 16- 34)
  • Amount of non-recyclable packaging (considered by 20 per cent of those aged 55+ compared with 10 per cent of those aged 16-34)
  • Fair trade (considered by 27 per cent of those aged 55+ compared with 17 per cent of those aged 16-34)

The agency said the main stage of the survey was conducted from 7 to 11 March 2008. A total of 2,068 interviews were conducted and respondents were asked for spontaneous responses followed by prompted questions.

The concept of sustainable development that the FSA was working off encompasses four elements: social progress; environmental protection; prudent use of natural resources and economic growth and employment.

Choice priortisied

According to the report, choice in terms of food availability and access, food quality, cost and healthiness are the most important factors for consumers, with two-thirds of shoppers (66 per cent) ranking an economic factor as most important.

The survey found that choice is an important issue for the respondents even if this is to the detriment of other aspects of sustainability.

“A large number of respondents [were] happy to admit that they would prefer a choice of fruit/vegetables all year round even though this would mean more air transportation or admit they would like to choose from a wide variety of fish regardless of stock levels,” stated the report.

Environmental focus

However the agency said that it is apparent that environmental issues do play a part in consumer’s shopping decisions.

Most of those surveyed said they have carried out at least one ‘food related environmental activity’ in the last two months.

But the FSA claims that its study shows that not many are carrying out a number of distinct activities such as buying free range eggs, buying locally farmed meat, choosing fair trade products, buying organic meat/poultry, choosing food based on air miles or choosing fish based on stock levels.

“In total, only 1.5 per cent of shoppers have conducted all six of these different food related environmental activities in the last two months, while five per cent have conducted five or more and 13 per cent have conducted four or more of these activities in the last two months.”

The agency said its findings demonstrate that the sub-groups most likely to have carried out food related environmental activities in the past or who consider or rank environmental issues highly are older shoppers (35+), those from social grade AB, women and those living in rural areas.

Lack of clarity

The study proved that sustainablity is still a confusing concept for some consumers, with two fifths of those surveyed unable to provide a definition.

According to FSA, consumers have a wide range of views and differing priorites on sustainable food policy.

“This general lack of agreement among consumers highlights the difficulty the FSA will face in communicating these messages to the general public,” stressed the agency.

Onus on sector

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said, in response, that factors such as price, quality and appearance have always featured most highly in purchasing decisions made by consumers.

However, Callton Young, FDF Director of Sustainability and Competitivenes, told FoodProductionDaily.com that FDF research shows that consumers still demand that food and drink manufacturers and other companies in the food chain behave responsibly, and work to reduce their environmental impacts wherever possible.

“They expect branded and other companies to operate against high environmental standards in bringing products to the marketplace,” argues Callton.

He said that the FDF, through its Five-Fold Environmental Ambition Programme, has been working to ensure that the environmental leadership and practice already being shown by food and drink manufaturers is clearly articulated and built upon.

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