ANALYSIS: Retailers must promote consumer choice in sustainability

A growing acceptance of green issues among consumers suggests retailers should spend less effort on convincing customers to make sustainable purchasing decisions and more on supporting them with those choices.

The findings come from a series of monthly sustainability studies ASDA undertook between January to September last year among its shoppers. The research found that an overwhelming 96% of respondents cared about green issues, with over 70% claiming it was very important to them.

The studies were conducted amongst various age groups and income level brackets, suggesting that green values are not exclusive to a particular population group or demographic. But while consumers want to live more sustainable lifestyles, they are often confused on what they need to do and buy in order to achieve this.

According to ASDA’s head of corporate sustainability Julian Walker-Palin, part of the problem lies in the way sustainability is communicated and marketed to the consumer.

Writing on Defra’s Sustainable Development website, Walker-Palin says: “Sustainability can often be made to sound very complicated. Jargon like ‘carbon taxes’, ‘water footprinting’ and ‘third-party certification’ may seem irrelevant to everyday life and there is often a sense that in order to be green you need a degree and will have to take out a second mortgage.”

The studies also revealed that waste reduction is one of the top five key priorities among shoppers. Similar consumer panels undertaken by Sainsbury’s have shown that packaging in particular is a real concern – the amount of excess materials householders are left with once goods have been consumed.

Speaking to edieWaste last November, Sainsbury’s climate change manager Jack Cunningham pointed out that packaging was no longer a single issue – it had evolved to become a delicate balancing act between shelf-life, product protection and innovation with regards to waste reduction.

While the likes of Sainsbury’s and ASDA have made great strides to ‘lightweight’ and portion size their products better, there is a growing realisation among major retailers that bulkier, heavier materials can in fact have a lower carbon footprint – not only that, but deliver better shelf-life.

According to Cunningham: “Customers expect less packaging, they don’t get the argument that says we need to give you more packaging because there’s a lower environmental impact of both the food waste and the packaging itself.”

But perhaps there are ways around this. This week Marks & Spencer (M&S) is rolling out what it claims is ground-breaking packaging that will extend the life of fruit stored in the fridge by up to two days, helping to cut down on food waste.

The retailer is using strawberries as its guineapig, adding a small plaster-style strip at the bottom of the punnets containing a mix of clay and other minerals that absorb ethylene – the ripening hormone which causes fruit to ripen and then turn mouldy.

The strip apparently doesn’t affect the recyclability of the packaging and there is no extra cost to the consumer. Trials carried out in M&S stores using this packaging have already resulted in a minimum wastage saving of 4%.

It’s a clever initiative, and according to ASDA’s Walker-Palin, sustainability is all about making smart choices that minimise waste and preserve resources. He says that consumers want to feel in control when it comes to making the right decisions – they want to set their own agenda, they want ‘green’ products and services to be easy to find, and not to cost more.

And this is where retailers can make a difference – empowering their customers by gaining a deeper understanding of what their needs are and coming up with solutions to give them that autonomy.

Maxine Perella

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