Most consumers don’t link diet & climate, but sustainability marketing could boost plant-based sales

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability Environment Climate change plant-based Red meat

Rising consumer concern about climate change is a powerful – but underused – marketing lever for plant-based products, according to new research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

In a report ​released last week, researchers found half of the more than 1,000 US adults surveyed said they would eat more plant-based foods if they had more information about the environmental impact of their food choices, and one in four said they reward food companies that are reducing their impact on the environment by buying their products.

Unfortunately, the report also found that most consumers are not making the connection between their diet and the environment with 70% reporting that they rarely or never talk about the issue with friends for family and nearly half rarely or never hear about the topic in the media.

“We are seeing the connection of food choices and climate is not being made, and I think there is a missed opportunity here for us to say, while health yes is a motivator, the planet is also a motivator,”​ Jillian Semaan, director of Food and Environment for Earth Day Network told FoodNavigator-USA.

She explained that “branding is a huge issue right now. I think what we need to do in the plant-based space is get the message out of the impact that what these brands and manufacturers are creating … has on the planet.”

She pointed to oat milk trailblazer Oatly as a good example for how brands can deliver this message.

On the side panel of Oatly’s original oat drink, the company writes that it is a “a crime”​ to pursue profits “without any consideration for the wellbeing of the planet and the humans that live here.”​ It also notes that “most companies think having a strong opinion means scaring away customers who think differently. We think it’s a good way to make some new friends.”

It goes on to note, “We believe we should eat stuff that we can grow instead of growing stuff to feed animals and then eat them.”

Semaan also notes that manufacturers can quickly communicate their values to consumers who may spend only a few seconds looking at packages in the store by qualifying for and calling out certifications, such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and certified vegan.

“If you see these labels that resonate with you as a consumer, I think we are more apt to buy those products,”​ she said.

Wanted: more variety

Stakeholders also argue that manufacturers need to create more plant-based options across categories to capitalize on consumer interest in the space. According to the research, 55% of survey respondents are willing to eat more plant-based alternatives, 46% are willing to use dairy alternatives and 26% would eat lab-grown meat rather than meat from animals.

“People are willing to try plant-based foods and eat less red meat. We can see that shift slowly happening. But what it means for brands is that, while yes, the Impossible and Beyond [brands] are out there, we need more than just that. We need more than just the burgers,”​ she said.

She also argues that retailers need to market plant-based food along side animal-based products rather in sections labeled “vegan” or “vegetarian,” which can be a turn off for consumers who do not identify as following those diets.

Overcoming barriers of price, taste & access

Manufacturers also must address several other barriers and misconceptions about plant-based diets that the research found could be holding back sales and mainstream adoption.

According to the research, about half of Americans think plant-based meals are more expensive than those with centered on an animal protein, which can be true – but doesn’t have to be, according to Semaan.

“JUST Egg, which is made out of mung bean and is delicious … is a better option, but the cost is too high for the average American,”​ especially when it is stocked next to eggs, many of which sell for only a couple of dollars per dozen, she said.

She acknowledged that a major reason for the higher price of plant-based alternatives to animal products is that they simply do not have the consumer demand and scale yet to bring down production costs and corresponding prices. Once they do, though, the research shows that consumers will be more likely to buy them with 63% of survey respondents reporting that they would be willing to eat more plant-based foods instead of meat if they cost less than meat options.

Another “huge barrier”​ for plant-based products is the common consumer perception that they don’t taste as good as animal products, according to the survey, which found 44% of respondents don’t like the taste of plant-based foods. However, if plant-based foods tasted better, 67% said they would be more willing to eat them.

“Taste is a barrier right now, but I think there are so many great companies right now that are really shifting their kitchen to find creative ways and solutions to taste,”​ Semaan said. “I would encourage retailers and brands to really do some research on local farmers’ herbs and spices. See what they are growing, see what is in season – whether it is dill, whether it is cumin, parsley, tahini. … There are so many great flavor profiles that I think they would be doing themselves a disservice if they don’t start incorporating more worldly flavors.”

Finally, “accessibility is also a barrier for a lot of people,”​ Semaan said. She pointed to the survey, which found one in seven lower-income Americans reported a lack of access to fresh produce compared to 6% of middle and 6% of higher-income Americans.

Pushing for broader distribution and easier access is one part of the solution, but another is making plant-based foods available in formats that are easier to sell in corner stores or for consumers to stock up on when they go to a larger grocery store that might also be farther away.

In addition, Semaan said, educating people about how to eat a plant-based diet with the ingredients that are available to them needs to be a priority. For brands, this might be including more plant-based recipes on packaging and social media to help teach consumers how to cook a complete plant-based meal with only a handful of ingredients.

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