Stakeholders from campaign groups to industry representatives made it clear this week the food sector needs to improve its environmental credentials. However, as Dean Best writes, the sector needs to take consumers along with them, thoughts echoed by MARKS AND SPENCER chief executive Marc Bolland yesterday (22 May).

Attending conferences on how to make the food industry more sustainable always underlines the complexity of the issue but, for all the talk of challenges and solutions, it is clear consumers need to be at the centre of any decision making.

In London on Monday (21 May), the Food and Drink Federation, the industry association for manufacturers operating in the UK, held an event to analyse the efforts made to, as it put it, “green our global food system”.

Representatives from industry, NGOs and government, including UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman discussed how to alleviate the industry’s impact on the environment. Manufacturers and retailers have looked to cut waste, reduce carbon emissions and use water more efficiently but the prospect of a ballooning population and pressure on ecosystems means industry is only at the early stages of its work.

“There has been phenomenal change already but we also have to be honest and say there is much that has yet to change,” Harriet Lamb, executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation, told delegates.

However, real change will only stick if consumers at placed at the heart of moves by industry, government and NGOs to make the food system more sustainable. Companies cutting their emissions and sending less waste to landfill are quick wins that do make a difference but it is changing consumer behaviour that will be the key to unlocking some of the problems facing the sector.

Consumers need to be convinced, even more so in what are the toughest economic conditions for a generation, that how and what they buy is vital to making the food system more sustainable.

Fairtrade has been a notable success. According to data from the Fairtrade Foundation, retail sales of products in the UK with the certification increased 12% in 2011. Organic sales, meanwhile, fell by more than 3%. Fairtrade’s success – and the poor performance of organic – have been put down to a number of factors. Some point to consumers’ preference for helping others rather than themselves for the resilience of Fairtrade sales during the downturn. Industry watchers also argue that Fairtrade products (bananas, sugar, chocolate) are not seen as premium lines and therefore buying Fairtrade lines only equates to an extra few pence.

A further crucial factor is almost one of marketing. Consumers understand that when they pay a few pence more for a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk or a bag of Tate & Lyle sugar that farmers will directly benefit. Shoppers in the UK are, broadly speaking, unsure about what organic really stands for. Is it quality? Health? Local food? Good for the environment? There is also debate over the organic sector’s sustainable credentials. That lack of clarity has undermined organic’s position in the UK but Fairtrade’s success demonstrates consumers will buy ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ products if they feel they are making a difference. Lamb, citing research from the Fairtrade Foundation, said 40% of consumers would “actively look for ethical choices when shopping”.

At the FDF event, a number of speakers highlighted the need to put consumers at the centre of initiatives to make the food system more sustainable and, crucially, it was at least recognised how difficult changing how and what shoppers buy can be.

UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said all stakeholders needed to work together. “This is something we absolutely have to do in conjunction with business and civil society as it is about changing consumer behaviour and that is notoriously difficult to do,” she said.

However, she was also optimistic that consumers were ready to listen. “We are under-going another revolution. The salience of food, its cost, the interest in where it has come from and the ethics around it are of interest to consumers. People want to do the right thing but you’ve got to make it easy for them. They want to be able to reach for the choice that gives them the expression of their desire to do the right thing. One of the challenges we have together is how we get that right.”

Nevertheless, campaigners believe government needs to take the lead. David Norman, director of campaigns at the WWF, said policy-makers in the West may have to take a lead in changing Western diets as consumers in the emerging economies of the East buy more meat and dairy lines, products that have a significant impact on the environment. Government will have to consider how to reflect the cost to the environment of producing food in the price of groceries, Norman said.

“How are we going to transform diets here so that there is space for that expansion? My sense is that it’s not going to come down primarily to choices. In the long run, it has to be that the price of food is reflected genuinely in the ecological damage that occurs. That’s a policy question as much as behaviour change,” Norman said.

Lamb suggested government could take a lead in a more tangible way and buy more sustainable products for its own use. “Eighteen per cent of GDP is government procurement so there is a huge leadership role government can play directly. The public just need to feel that it’s becoming the norm,” she said.

And, of course, there is industry. Campaigners believe the food sector has worked hard but must do more and that is recognised by manufacturers and retailers. In fact, some in business believe companies can act more quickly and go further than government, a view outlined by Unilever CEO Paul Polman in an interview with just-food recently.

Andrew Kuyk, director of sustainability and competitiveness at the FDF, said manufacturers needed to do the work for consumers. “It’s unfair to expect consumers, in addition all the other things they’ve got to weigh up, to look at subtle differences. We’ve got to embed this in our products,” he said.

Of course, manufacturers need to tread carefully. Changing the nature of any of their products in any way, particularly on taste and quality, could risk a consumer backlash. Maybe, then, the answer is to not actively tell consumers of any product changes. Even so, the consumer, again, is at the heart of that decision-making.

Twenty-four hours later, Marc Bolland, chief executive of upmarket UK retailer Marks and Spencer, which has developed one of the more transparent and wide-ranging sustainability initiatives in the industry, told reporters at the company’s annual results it was “time to get consumers engaged”.

“It’s not about a box-ticking exercise,” Bolland said of M&S’s Plan A sustainability programme. “It’s of extreme importance that we start engaging customers now. The national green agenda is going to the background. Everyone is talking about the economy. We need to get it to the forefront.”

With the Rio +20 conference in under a month, green issues will return to the headlines. Hopefully it will give industry and government added impetus to look at their sustainability initiatives and consider whether consumers really are central to them.