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Thanks to the consciousness-raising film “An Inconvenient Truth” and the Live Earth concert series, global awareness of environmental issues has increased, prompting attitudinal changes, but consumer behavior at retail is changing more slowly. In many cases, “green” concerns are the unwitting beneficiaries of tough financial times as people drive less and rediscover the versatility of leftovers.
There’s not much that’s convenient about climate change and its impact on the food chain. Unfortunately, environmental concerns are taking a back seat to more immediate and pressing financial concerns during this recession. Just one year ago, issues like the environment, health and work/life balance ranked as the primary or secondary concern for consumers. In an April 2009 Nielsen Global Online Survey covering more than 50 countries, it’s the economy and job security that are keeping people awake at night, with global warming falling to 14th place on the list of “biggest and second-biggest concerns.”
Half of respondents felt that, over the next 10 years, their lives would be negatively affected by climate change, while one-third anticipated little difference. On a country-by-country basis, six of the top seven “most concerned” populations resided in the Latin American countries of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. The sole European exception -- and most concerned country overall -- was Greece.
Forced to review spending habits in an attempt to hold the line on costs, green concerns are emerging as an inadvertent winner. For example, lower new car sales translate into fewer cars on the road and lower exhaust emissions, with a positive impact on global warming. In rosier times, households tended to waste up to 30 percent of food -- today, families are searching recipe Web sites for ways to repurpose leftovers.
Even as consumers are adopting more environmentally prudent practices, a disparity remains between the percentage of people who claim to be “concerned about the global environment” (80 percent) and those who say they have proactively changed their daily behavior in the last six months to address climate change (51 percent).
A great debate rages as to the appropriate way to measure the costs of sustainability efforts. Some tout the value of food miles -- promoting the benefits of buying locally and limiting transportation costs. Others prefer carbon emissions, because mode of transport and time of year can actually make imported products less damaging to the environment.
The carbon emissions method takes into account the energy required to grow and process a product, which can outweigh the cost of transportation. Examples of cost-effective imports to Europe include New Zealand lamb, Spanish tomatoes, New Zealand winter apples and Kenyan roses.
Consumers want retailers to step up and bring clarity to the sustainability issue, as they have with food labeling. In mid-July 2009, Walmart Stores made the bold move of announcing an environmental labeling program that would require every vendor -- no exceptions -- to calculate the full environmental impact and cost of their products.
Based on this input, Walmart would then assign a green rating to every product in the store. The actual rating system may take as long as five years to implement, but represents a landmark moment for the sustainability movement.
The Nielsen Global Online Survey findings suggest that shoppers are trying to make a contribution to the sustainability movement in a number of ways. More than half of consumers purchase energy-efficient products and appliances as well as locally made items. Over 40 percent of shoppers choose products in recyclable packaging or buy at a farmers’ market.
More than 30 percent seek out products with little or no packaging and opt for organics where available. More than one-quarter prefer fair trade products, those that are ethically produced or grown, and locally sourced alternatives.
One example of an environmentally sensitive program has been introduced by the seafood industry. Demand for seafood is on the rise, thanks to the combined impact of publicity campaigns touting the health benefits of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids found in fish, and the negative health and environmental aspects of bringing red meat to the table. Fully 92 percent of people around the world reported eating fish in the last year.
The downside of increased demand for seafood has been a related upswing in over-fishing, leading to the depletion of many species at world fisheries. In response, the Marine Stewardship Council developed a logo now featured on millions of products that tells consumers the producing company employs sustainable fishing practices. Seven in 10 survey respondents felt that the on-pack accreditation stamp for sustainably sourced fish was important to their purchase decision.
Among the countries most heavily influenced by the fish sustainability label were Vietnam, Philippines, Brazil, Columbia, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, India, Chile, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.
When asked where responsibility rested for monitoring fishing practices and protecting the sea’s fish stocks, survey respondents voted for country governments (67 percent), the fishing industry itself (46 percent), fish manufacturers and processors (28 percent), people who buy or eat fish (19 percent), non-government organizations (18 percent) and fish product retailers (16 percent).
While many see the move by major player Walmart as a way to differentiate itself from the competition and build consumer loyalty, others believe that in the future, aggressive sustainability programs will become table stakes -- simply the price of entry at retail. The ultimate goal is to achieve a triple play where the people, planet and profits all benefit from environmental activism.