Changing consumer attitudes and increasing urgency for global climate action means action by all is non-negotiable. tna solutions CEO and managing director Alf Taylor breaks down the top three ways sustainability is shaping consumer demand, and how brands can adapt their packaging operations to keep shoppers coming back for more. This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Food and Drink Business.
A “code red for humanity” is how the United Nations secretary general described the most recent IPCC report, which details the impact on the planet if decisive action is not taken to limit climate change. Language like this reflects the seriousness with which the international community is treating the climate crisis challenge – a sentiment that has also prompted a marked shift in consumer behaviour.
Driven by a growing sense of environmental consciousness, consumers are looking to shop more responsibly, reduce food waste and make informed decisions about the products they buy, and the companies they support. To keep up with these demands, food manufacturers must remain sensitive to consumers’ shifting environmental attitudes, without neglecting the other key trends shaping shoppers’ decisions in the post-pandemic world.
1. Health is still king
Just as world events have made consumers more environmentally aware, the pandemic is still fuelling an intense focus on health and wellness. In contrast to pre-COVID-19 attitudes, shoppers are less likely to gravitate towards fad diets. Instead, many are looking to make long-term changes to the eating habits to lead a healthier, happier and ultimately longer life.
This quest for holistic wellness currently seems to be eclipsing consumers’ desire to shop more sustainably. Indeed, 57 per cent of those surveyed by GlobalData state that how a product effects their health influences their decision to buy, versus 42 per cent who say the same of a product’s environmental impact.
Making their offering more sustainable could also help brands appeal to wellness-focused consumers. Often called the ‘health halo’ effect, research has found that shoppers perceive eco-friendly products to be fresher and healthier, making them more likely to buy based on health and environmental responsibility.
The meteoric rise of plant-based products is a prime example of how the health halo can boost sales. Among the many reasons people choose to consume plant-based alternatives, 60 per cent cite improved health and wellness as their main incentive, with the next most popular factor being animal welfare and sustainability.
Clearly, ideas around sustainability and healthfulness are closely linked in consumers’ minds, meaning producers have everything to gain by targeting both trends.
For food manufacturers, the key to success in this area is choosing flexible, efficient processing and packaging solutions that can be adapted quickly to produce plant-based or ‘better-for-you’ products.
Power and resource saving features, such as automated gas-flow analysis software, can help boost the power of the health halo effect even further – minimising energy wastage and ensuring fewer packs are rejected due to being under or over-filled with gas.
2. Safety first, then sustainability?
Like attitudes concerning health and nutrition, the pandemic has radically altered consumers’ ideas about food hygiene and safety. In a recent survey conducted by GlobalData, ‘comfort and safety’ ranked highest among consumer purchase drivers, with 57 per cent stating that a product’s trustworthiness usually factors into their decision to buy, while 51 per cent said that ‘tamper proof’ packaging has become more important to them because of the pandemic.
The same survey found that just under half of adults consider ethical and environmental responsibility to be their most important decision-making factor, demonstrating that food safety currently outranks sustainability in consumers’ priority lists.
Fortunately, research shows that lowering the environmental impact of a packaging line can help producers reassure consumers that their products are a safer option. Shoppers perceive sustainably produced products to be ‘fresher and safer’, largely because they offer greater transparency about their ingredients sourcing and processing methods.
By improving traceability along their supply chains and processing lines therefore, brands can tap into two important consumer trends, simultaneously.
Companies can achieve a greater level of operational transparency by harnessing the latest smart, integrated controls technology now commonly offered alongside modern packaging equipment. Date code assurance solutions for example, can be employed to check product date codes are always printed correctly, while barcode scanning systems ensure the batch being processed aligns with pre-set production schedules. To minimise the risk of foreign contaminants entering packs, in-line monitoring systems like metal detectors and X-ray equipment, can be used to identify and remove harmful materials before a product is packaged.
3. Keeping promises
Despite competing consumer trends, shoppers clearly care about making ethical, informed choices when it comes to food products. This investment in environmentalism is, however, creating a new challenge for manufacturers: overcoming consumer cynicism. With so many brands adding eco-friendly claims to their products, some shoppers are starting to become distrustful of companies’ motivations – questioning whether they are truly working to protect the planet or just paying lip-service for the sake of sales.
The industry has a responsibility to reduce energy usage and waste, while catering to the nutritional needs of a growing global population.
The highly accurate performance data provided by the latest processing and packaging technologies is an invaluable tool food producers can use to combat consumer scepticism. With in-depth records on ingredients sourcing, energy usage and product waste, along with the option to continually optimise lines for improved efficiency, advanced equipment like this can help companies allay doubts with concrete, indisputable facts.
Sustainability isn’t just a ‘trend’ – unlike most other factors that influence consumer behaviour, the need to protect the planet will not ‘go out of fashion’. The industry has a responsibility to reduce energy usage and waste, while catering to the nutritional needs of a growing global population.
At tna solutions, we help food manufacturers make their operations more efficient, boost performance and keep lines resilient to whatever challenges the sector may face.