'Encourage and enable': How Unilever is walking the talk on plant-based diets

EXCLUSIVE: After its report detailing 50 foods which consumers should eat more frequently to help tackle environmental issues went viral last year, Unilever's largest food brand Knorr has detailed its work to embed the campaign's aims across its own supply chain.

Foods included on the list range from grains, sweet potatoes and pulses, to seaweed and cacti

Foods included on the list range from grains, sweet potatoes and pulses, to seaweed and cacti

Launched 12 months ago in partnership with WWF, Knorr’s Future 50 Foods report lists 50 plant-based foods which purport to have a lower impact on the environment – in terms of emissions, soil health, water use and yield – than animal products and most other plants. Listed foods range from those common in UK supermarkets, like spinach and sweet potatoes, to seaweeds and cacti.  

Targeted directly at consumers, the report was bolstered with a communications campaign re-iterating that the foods “grow and are available in a wide number of countries and can be the side or centre of everyday meals”. In order to further incentivise behaviour change, Knorr also developed a digital tool providing those who report readers with personalised recipes incorporating one or more of the foods.

It would be fair to say that the report went viral. In the UK, it received media coverage in most major tabloids and broadsheets, attracting the attention of those working in food and sustainability, and the wider public alike. Similar media attention was given to the report on a global scale, which, coupled with uptake by retailers, restaurants, schools and the general public, ultimately culminated in the UN formally recognising its contribution to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2: Zero Hunger.

Following the success of the report launch, Knorr this week pledged to increase the amount of products in its portfolio that feature Future 50 Foods by 25% by 2025. The brand’s sustainability lead Dorothy Shaver explained that it had first launched products with high Future 50 Foods content “on purpose” to coincide with the report launch, following years of R&D, and now wants to accelerate this work.

“Although the campaign may have looked like something we were just doing externally, prior to even the launch, our 280 [in-house] chefs around the world had been experimenting with the foods… and the themes behind it have been a key thread throughout Knorr’s strategy,” Shaver told edie.

“Putting a tangible number on this work has been done to move progress forward more quickly and to communicate that we have a true commitment to getting these foods into our supply chain, into retailers and into the work of our other partners.”

In order to make the supply chain changes needed to meet the 2025 target, Knorr will leverage its partnership with WWF to support suppliers to produce Future 50 Foods “where they can and should be grown” in terms of the environmental and social context, rather than bluntly cutting ties with existing suppliers, Shaver explained.

In regions of South Africa affected by drought, for example, smallholder farmers are being given practical advice and financial support to switch from crops with lower yields, higher water requirements or weaker nutritional profiles to Future 50 Foods.

WWF is supporting this transition because, Shaver explained, the NGO has connections to a larger range of farming groups than Unilever and better data on the climate and social impact of global food systems. Moreover, she added, third party assurance from a body with scientific experts ensures that Knorr’s targets and actions to deliver against them “have as much credibility as possible”.

Channels of communication

While Knorr’s new commitment is focussed on its internal operations, the partnerships Knorr has forged in order to make Future 50 Foods commonplace beyond its own products and supply chains are numerous.

The brand is stocked in many major supermarket chains globally and the first to engage with the Future 50 Foods initiative publicly is French firm Carrefour. Carrefour has fitted a number of its stores with packaging-free refill stations containing listed foods which are available dried, as part of a pilot which could be rolled out nationally if consumer feedback is promising and if unintended environmental consequences don’t present. At stores where this format is being trialled, facilities for customers to access recipes featuring Future 50 Foods are also provided. 

Through Unilever’s B2B food arm, Knorr products are also supplied to several foodservice giants. Among them, Sodexo committed last year to introduce Future 50 Foods to its 5,000 kitchens across the UK, France, Belgium and the US, and will this year extend that commitment to 10 additional national markets. Shaver said this will enable the campaign to reach “millions and millions of people” in workspaces and public sector organisations.

Going forward, Knorr will work to expand these two partnerships and to look for additional partners “all over the world”, Shaver confirmed, but time-bound numerical targets have not yet been developed in this space.

Existing retail and catering collaborations, Shaver said, “encourage and enable” consumers to make dietary changes. While Knorr has the ability to do much "encouraging" through its website, communications and products (and will amplify this work through a cookbook, due out this year) it ultimately relies on partners to choice-edit or nudge at the point of consumer choice - the “enabling” work.

Outside of the B2B space, other partnerships have been forged with chefs and with schools.

Touchy subject?

The announcement of Knorr’s 2025 target comes less than a month after Veganuary recorded its most successful campaign to date. January saw almost half a million people worldwide pledge to eat only plant-based food for the month, with a view to changing their long-term dietary habits.

Keen to profit from these changing consumer tastes and to meet the aims of their own sustainability strategies, brands across the food sector – including Greggs, KFC and Subway - launched new vegan products to coincide with the campaign. And sales boomed, while supermarkets recorded falling red meat sales.

While the concerns for animal welfare and planetary health, a desire to improve health or to save money on grocery bills have proven enough for plant-based diets to boom, Shaver explained: “It is hard for us to make even small changes in peoples’ diets – let alone the big shifts that need to happen in order to mitigate what’s happening in the world now”.

Future 50 Foods aims to tackle this behaviour change barrier, she said, by avoiding messaging which makes people feel “negative or guilty” about the environmental impact of their current diets.

“The ambition of Future 50 Foods is to switch the conversation away from ‘I can’t eat this, I can’t eat that’, to ‘this is what I should really eat more of’,” Shaver summarised. Indirect impacts on diets will be, by nature, harder to quantify than progress internally – but Shaver hopes they will be more impactful than any progress Knorr could deliver within its four walls.

Sarah George



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