Will rising prices shelve sustainability messaging for retailers?

With rising prices and increasing economic pressures across the board, achieving cut-through with sustainability messages has never been so challenging.

When it comes to supermarket shelves, consumers face a huge set of options to shop ethically. Organic, free-range, responsibly sourced, line-caught, gluten-free, vegan... just to name a few. While fantastic for consumer choice, it can be overwhelming and even bamboozling.

Throw into the mix the effect of rising food prices, and this could be a recipe for disaster, particularly for teams trying to land sustainability messaging.

With food inflation at its highest levels since 2012, the challenge is around balancing the required drive for consumers to shop ethically while having empathy for household budgets.

There is a clear appetite (if you’ll pardon the pun) from most consumers, especially Gen Z and millennials, to shop and eat as consciously and sustainably as possible. In fact, they want to mainly interact with brands that have a clear purpose beyond profits. This represents a challenge and an opportunity for retailers aiming to market their products while matching consumer wants.

With the current global and UK political situation, retailers will be tasked with meeting inflation rises head-on, while robustly ensuring the sustainability agenda doesn’t lose traction and sustainable food production remains a priority.

We’ve all seen big and small companies making misleading claims on the environmental credentials of their portfolio. These have the potential to damage how sustainability messaging lands and influences consumer behaviour if they can’t trust the messages being shared.

The Advertising Standards Authority found one popular retailer had failed to back up claims that switching to plant-based burgers would “positively affect the environment. And they weren't alone in receiving complaints. Another large UK supermarket chain also faced a complaint over greenwashing for plant-based food (these have subsequently been found by the ASA not to have breached any rules).

However, what they failed to consider (and what the ASA sighted) was the entirety of the supply chain. Some plant-based products, particularly processed products, contain several ingredients globally sourced and transported by high carbon methods with an undeniably negative environmental impact.

This has brought into focus from a communications perspective the need to embrace sustainability as a core value and strategic driver, not just a marketing tactic or a CSR initiative. Especially with transparency and authenticity firmly back on the menu for communications teams in the retail sector. Retailers must live these values across their entire supply chain, from tractor to trolley. The key to this is building credibility through proof points and letting actions speak louder than words.

Retailers' intent to address sustainability within the chain supply is valid and needed. From a communications point of view, this must be backed with third-party verified data and balanced with real empathy and consideration to the end consumer in the current economic climate.

Technology advances across the value chain, down to farm level, will make this possible, ensuring any environmental/sustainability claims are robust, accurate and, above all, trustworthy.

Kunal Mehta is global director, marketing and communications, at DSM

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