In the last quarter of 2016, VECO Belgium initiated a cocreation process with retail professionals and consumers. Our common goal? To come up with tools and processes to mainstream sustainable food consumption. Will we succeed to break out of the gridlock in which consumers, on the one hand point to supermarkets to act on sustainability and supermarkets, on the other hand, fear to lose market share when they do so?
Consumer, the actor least involved in the chain?
When setting-up multi-stakeholder processes to develop more sustainable agri-food chains, consumers tend to be excluded. Whereas consumers can enhance more sustainable food systems by means of their purchase behavior. The last decade we have witnessed a changing mindset among consumer preferences towards more sustainability. 50 to 80% of the citizens say they are interested in sustainability issues. Even if this is not reflected in their purchasing behavior, they are aware that their consumer behavior has an impact on the sustainability of the food system.
Then why are they often ‘forgotten’ in multi-stakeholder processes. First of all “the average consumer” doesn’t exist. Consumers show many different preferences, attitudes and behaviors and cannot be represented by one average voice. Secondly, literature has clearly exposed the attitude-behavior gap. Citizens tend to consent to the necessity of sustainable consumption, but this pro-sustainable attitude is not reflected into the shopping trolley. In Belgium, only 7% of the food purchases can be classified as ‘sustainable’, a low percentage compared to the 50 to 80% of citizens saying they are interested in sustainability issues.
This gap can be explained while looking at how food purchasing decisions are taken. When it comes to food, many people make buying decisions on auto-pilot – hereby often seduced by price reductions or other marketing strategies. For most of their food purchases in supermarkets, consumers do not act rationally; most of the choices are automatic habits, without any reflections, and in a sub-conscious decision-making process. Consumers rarely notice new information or take rational criteria, such as sustainability concerns, into consideration..
Shifting supply, shifting demand
Therefore it seems obvious to put most efforts in choice-editing systems, removing non-sustainable products from the shelves in supermarkets, or explicitly promoting more sustainable products. Such promotion is not effective when only raising awareness or providing information; it only works by means of the usual marketing techniques (price, place, position, promotion). This can shift consumption patterns and food shopping behavior in a more effective way, for a larger group of consumers. But supermarkets will be reluctant to make many efforts for choice editing because consumers still want to find easily their usual products at good prices, and could move to another retailer.
And so an impasse is created: no demand, no supply.
Therefore we are finding out how a co-creation process between consumers and retailers can overcome this. When consumers and retailers are finding out together how they can cooperate on sustainability issues, there is a potential for co-ownership of the process from consumer side and there is potential for recognition and appreciation of the efforts done by the supermarket. The public support – created by the steering position of both consumers and retailers – generates a positive drive which stimulates retailers to expand their sustainable procurement policy. On the other hand, this public support can enhance community participation and valorise the efforts being done by retailers. Of course at the end this should also result in a turnover which is viable for the supermarket.