Raw power: How brands and retailers can re-energise sustainability messaging  

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Retailers and brands should tap into the raw energy of younger citizen-consumers to reinvigorate sustainability messaging in the natural and organic space. Businesses should also be prepared to challenge customers and themselves more, to be sure they really are doing the ‘right thing’ for people and planet.

These were two of the top takeaways from a lively discussion on the theme ‘how to sell sustainability’, which took place at last weekend’s NOPEX event. 

Chaired by Al Overton from Wonderland Ventures (formerly buying director at Planet Organic), the session brought together retailers Phil Haughton (Better Food), Sophie Davies (Planet Organic) and brand owner Nick Saltmarsh (co-founder, Hodmedods). 

Overton opened up the discussion by getting the panel to think about the opportunity there is to reach out to the growing ranks of eco-forward shoppers. He said: “The health food industry has always been called the health food industry. But there’s also been a part of it that is about sustainability and good for the planet solutions. And I think that one of the effects Covid had, in a slightly difficult to articulate way, was to make a clearer connection between better for me and better for the planet products and activities. This creates a real opportunity because there is a younger customer base driven more by eco concerns. The health concerns will come when they become a bit less young!”. 

So, what did the panelists each think that these sustainability focused customers really want – and what are they looking for from brands and retailers?  

Making a difference
Planet’s Davies said that customers wanted confirmation that their choices were “making a difference”. So they were looking for clear information about provenance, ingredients integrity and packaging. “As retailers and brands we need to be asking, are these things being communicated well, are we explaining clearly the journey of this product?”.

Better Food’s Haughton said that understanding what eco-minded consumers wanted was a challenge in itself. “When I talk to young people who come into our stores, they’re not even looking for organic anymore – as a word. But they are looking at the values that sit behind it. So it’s broadening out to the word sustainability. Which is a big, clumsy word. What words could we be using, that haven’t been adulterated along the way? Look at what has happened to ‘natural’. I’m not sure I have the answers, but what I would say is that story-telling is a vital tool. And simplicity of the messaging is important.”

Saltmarsh suspected that younger consumers were looking “at the broader picture, a wider set of impacts”. While they might not be looking for organic by name they may well be looking for something that they call ‘regenerative’. “The challenge for us as brands is to communicate these things in a way that makes closer connections between people and the food they eat. Because it’s closer connections with food that we really want to encourage.”

Disrupt and interrupt
One of the challenges in getting consumers to choose more sustainable products is that they typically flip into cruise control when they walk into a store. Overton asked the the panellists to suggest ways to “disrupt and interrupt the default shopper journey – where someone will go to the same shop and buy the same products from the same shelves”.  

Davies said that brands needed to be able to capture the shopper’s attention very quickly, with “something that stands out and has a firm grounding”. She added: “Brands need to be bold, engaging and consistent. What is the product? What’s the benefit? What’s its journey? I think from a retailer’s perspective, it’s trying to build that experience and talk about the point of difference of those products.”

Saltmarsh said that “getting people to think about the products we offer (British grown pulses, grains and seeds)” had been a key priority from the start. “When we started with fava beans, people were being confronted with a largely unfamiliar product. So we needed to ask questions like ‘why if they’re grown in the UK don’t many people eat them?’, and ‘how how can I use them, and in what dishes?’.” Getting consumers thinking about provenance created other opportunities, he suggested. “If you offer UK customers quinoa with a very clear UK provenance, you hopefully prompt questions about where other quinoa comes from, and what are the impacts of that quinoa?”. 

Haughton said that customer engagement – events and in-store catering created conversation-starting opportunities – was key. “In fact, without that it’s really quite difficult to achieve useful disruption. The people I really want to disrupt are the shoppers who don’t even cross the threshold! There, the challenge is to make a whole lot of noise on social media and other channels to effect that disruption.” 

The right thing, or the expected thing?
Overton asked the panellists about another challenge for retailers and brands who are trying to improve their sustainability performance: “The conflict for a business of trying to do the right thing, versus doing the expected thing.”  

Summarising the dilemma, he said: “One shopper may be very concerned about shopping locally. Another might be very concerned about packaging and see plastic as an absolute no-no. They might see glass packaging as a greener alternative, but perhaps without taking account of all of the impacts, the full product life-cycle, carbon costs and so on. So there are things that we do as businesses and brands that pander to customer expectations. And there are things that we do as businesses and brands because they are the right thing to do. How do we get the balance right and do more of the right thing, rather than the expected thing?”.

Haughton clearly recognised the issue: “I think most retailers in this sector are probably smiling at this point. It’s something we’re constantly dealing with. He said he’d been excited about the recent refill revival. “We sold loose foods from sacks using scoops way back in the 1980s, like many others did – no plastic in sight. So the new take on refills and zero waste looked really interesting. But from an exciting start it seemed to plateau quickly, and now looks to be in decline.” 

Perhaps the zero waste model moves the dial too far for most consumers. But even Better Food’s own shoppers seem conflicted between sustainability and convenience. To make the point Haughton cited carrots. “I immediately think of unwashed carrots in our stores versus washed carrots. I assumed that organic consumers word say ‘give me some of that earth, connect me with the soil that my food is grown in’. Not at all. Washed, washed, washed. In fact, if I put those washed carrots in plastic bags, which I don’t, I would be very surprised if those carrots didn’t start flying off the shelves. And we’re talking about a very conscious, well-informed consumer in our stores. I think it’s the whole expectation that supermarkets have created, and the direction they’ve relentlessly been taking people in over the last 20 years. It’s why I think we need to bring back some potency in our stores.” 

Saltmarsh said that brands and retailers should be “prepared to challenge customers – and themselves – and be ready to interrogate our processes to make sure that we are doing the right thing. I think that customers look to our brands and retailers to make choices for them. As individuals it’s just not possible for us to evaluate every single impact of a product that we buy, so it’s important for us to be doing a lot of that work for customers.”

Tapping in to the new raw
Haughton made the observation that some of the edge and and sense of possibility that had been around in the past might have been lost in recent years. Was there anything that he would like to re-inject into the contemporary sustainability mix? “Well you can’t go back. But in answer to your question the thing that I think we have lost a bit of is the rawness. But I think the younger generation have a lot to say about that. We are discovering a new raw – and we can learn from that. And I’m now actively going out, engaging with young people on social media, inviting them in for coffee and hearing from them what’s going on. I need to know this stuff has a retailer. 

“I’d go back again to that word ‘potency’. Fundamentally, our house is on fire. What do you do when your house is on fire, what choices do you make? These are the questions we have to ask as businesses, to give us the answers we need in order to move forward purposefully and with a more exacting philosophy.” 

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