Taste and nutrition company Kerry has conducted new research into consumer expectations around sustainability in the food and beverage sector. The ‘really surprising results’ are in: Consumers ‘positioned sustainability as a must-have rather than a differentiator’.
More people than ever before are speaking out on behalf of the planet — not just with their voices and votes, but with their wallets as well. The individual consumer decisions that each of us makes, from the car we drive to the food we eat, may be mere drops in the bucket when it comes to solving the biggest ecological challenges, but together they add up to a groundswell of support for change — one that leaders from all sectors of society would be wise to embrace.
In a March survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they’re willing to pay more for sustainable products, but most (74 percent) don’t know how to identify them. So, how can brands communicate with consumers about sustainability and help them understand how their purchases and behaviors impact the planet?
There’s no getting around it: This space is complex, and creating products that truly carry less impact on the environment requires a host of considerations. But communicating with consumers doesn’t have to be complicated, and rising public awareness of sustainability is an open invitation for brands to turn consumer passion into engagement, loyalty and trust.
The importance of sustainability to consumers has “massively increased in importance even among lower incomes,” said Konstantinos Apostolatos, managing director and senior partner for The Boston Consulting Group. The accelerated interest is going to change how companies communicate with consumers and collaborate with their customers and suppliers.
Rush hour will likely return when pandemic lockdowns lift, but a new study suggests that congestion pricing — policies that charge tolls for driving during peak hours — could not only cure traffic jams but also convince motorists it is safe to buy smaller, more efficient cars.
Would you drink carbonated beverages made with carbon dioxide captured from the smokestack of a factory or power plant?
How would you feel if that captured carbon dioxide were in your child’s toys, or in the concrete under your house?
The technology to capture climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions from smokestacks, and even from the air around us, already exists; so too does the technology to use this carbon dioxide to make products like plastics, concrete, carbonated drinks and even fuel for aircraft and automobiles.
That’s why technologies that can reuse carbon dioxide to avoid fossil fuel use – or even better, lock it away in long-lived products like cement – are essential.
The key to carbon capture and utilitization’s potential is that these products have economic value. That value can give companies the incentive to deploy the technology at the global scale necessary to slow climate change.
Carbon capture technology itself isn’t new. Initially, captured carbon dioxide was used to force oil and gas out of old wells. Once emissions are captured, typically from an industrial smokestack via a complex chemical filter, they can be pumped deep underground and stored in depleted oil reservoirs or porous rock formations. That keeps the carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere, where it can contribute to climate change.
How do people feel about carbon dioxide-based products?
For many products made with captured carbon dioxide, success will depend on whether the public accepts them.
Two of us recently conducted one of the first large-scale studies to examine public perception of carbon dioxide-based products in the U.S. to find out. We asked over 2,000 survey participants if they would be willing to consume or use various carbon dioxide-based products, including carbonated beverages, plastic food storage containers, furniture made with foam or plastic, and shatterproof glass.
We found that most people knew little about carbon capture and use. However, 69% were open to the idea after learning how it worked and how it helped reduce the emissions contributing to climate change.
There was one exception when we asked about different types of products people might be willing to use: Fewer people – only 56% – were open to the idea of using captured carbon dioxide in carbonated beverages.
Safety was a concern for many people in the survey. One-third didn’t know if these products might pose a health risk, and others thought they would. It’s important to understand that products made with captured carbon dioxide are subject to the same safety regulations as traditional materials used in food and consumer products. This includes filtering out unwanted pollutants in the flue gas before using the carbon dioxide in carbonated beverages or plastics.
When carbon dioxide is used as a raw material, it becomes chemically stable once it is used to create a product, meaning carbon dixoide used to create plastic will not turn back into a gas on its own.
What people may not realize is that the majority of carbon dioxide currently used nationwide is already a fossil fuel byproduct from the steam-methane reforming process. This carbon dioxide is used widely for purposes that include making dry ice, performing certain medical procedures and carbonating your favorite soda.
Overall, we found that people were open to using these products, and that trend crossed all ages, levels of education and political ideologies (view the chart).
Carbon capture and use already has bipartisan support in Washington, and the Department of Energy is funding research in carbon management. Bipartisan consumer support could quickly expand its use, creating another way to keep carbon emissions out of the air.
Recently, Unilever and partners piloted replacing fossil-based ethanol with carbon dioxide-based ethanol for manufacturing laundry detergent, significantly reducing the associated ethanol emissions. Both are cost-competitive methods to capture and use carbon dioxide, and they demonstrate why carbon capture and use could be the most market-friendly way to remove carbon dioxide on a large scale.
How innovators can improve public perception
Some emerging technologies could help address the perceived risks of ingesting carbon captured from industrial emissions.
The most important steps may be educating the public about the process and the value of carbon dioxide-based products. Companies can alleviate concerns by being open about how they use carbon dioxide, why their products are safe and the benefits they hold for the climate.
Two-thirds (67%) of consumers consider it important that the products they buy are in recyclable packaging, and the same percentage consider themselves environmentally aware — the same share as before the pandemic, according to Trivium Packaging’s 2021 Global Buying Green Report. The report is based on a survey conducted with Boston Consulting Group with 15,000 consumers in Europe, North America and South America.
More than half (54%) take sustainable packaging into consideration when selecting a product. Younger consumers — those 44 years and younger — are leading the charge, with 83% reporting that they are willing to pay more for it, compared to 70% of all consumers. However, the pandemic has caused about one in three consumers to lower the importance they place on sustainable packaging.
Despite their willingness to support sustainable packaging, many consumers are misinformed about the recycling rates of different materials. Survey respondents believed that 48% of metal was recycled, when the real rate is 64%, according to figures from Global Recycling and the International Aluminum Institute cited in the report. However, the recycling rates for glass, plastic and liquid cartons were much lower than consumers expected.
Sarah Otto, Mara Strenger, Andrea Maier-Nöth, Markus Schmid (2021). “Food packaging and sustainability – Consumer perception vs. correlated scientific facts: A review.” Journal of Cleaner Production 298, 126733. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.126733
Abstract: Food packaging maintains the food safety and ensures the quality of food throughout the supply chain. Both are achieved by the protective function of the packaging against negative ambient influences such as mechanical damage, light or water vapour. Material, form and concepts of packaging vary widely, which thus also differentiates the environmental impact for packaging. This paper provides an overview of the current research of European consumer perception and how this correlates with the environmental impact of loose foodstuffs and packaged food. Considered materials are plastic, glass, metal, and paper/cardboard. These perceptions are compared to the objective environmentally friendliness based on the selected assessment criteria carbon footprint, recycling rate, reuse rate and biological degradation/decomposition in Europe. The purpose of this paper is to discover whether there is any link between the consumer perception and the scientific assessed environmental sustainability. Consumers judge packaging material by criteria of circular economy, natural looking material, and design. The environmental impact of paper/cardboard and metal are rated in line with the scientific measure by consumers, whereas plastic packaging is underestimated and glass and biodegradable plastic packaging are highly overestimated. These results indicate that the rating of European consumers and scientific life cycle assessments turn out differently. The differences are mainly linked by theoretical concepts of recyclability, biodegradability, and reuse rate of the packaging. Consumers evaluate food packaging by affective feelings than using cognitive reasoning. Their knowledge about the practical implementation of recyclability, biodegradability and reusability as well as additional environmental impact factors are low. Consequently, consumers’ buying behaviour is in most cases less environmentally sustainable than intended. Awareness trainings based on scientific facts, clear product and packaging information based on labelling schemes (“eco-labelling”) and nudging for sustainable behaviour can potentially support consumers in their sustainable buying behaviour.
Knowing the environmental cost of a food product thanks to a label could encourage consumers to choose more ecological alternatives. However in order to have the desired effect, Scandinavian researchers have shown that such product labelling should be mandatory.