Conscious consumers are now, more than ever, seeking sustainable options in retail, and a growing commitment within the food industry to meet sustainability targets provides alternative proteins an opportune moment to claim the sustainability space as a point of difference.
The environmental toll of traditional food systems is undeniable. Agriculture now uses almost half of Earth’s habitable surface, three-quarters of which is grazing and feed production, and 90% of fish stocks are now ‘fully exploited or overfished’. Demonstrating how eco-conscious diet choices can and should play a large role in environmental efforts, a comprehensive study by Oxford University on diet and climate impact found that following an entirely plant-based diet resulted in 75% less emissions.
Despite mounting evidence of the connection between food choices and sustainability, and governments around the world recognising the need to prioritise food system change to address climate change, the average consumer isn’t connecting the dots. It could have something to do with the fact that 93% of climate news still fails to mention animal agriculture at all, as revealed by recent research on all news outlets in the USA.
At Food Frontier’s AltProteins 23 conference in October, Simon Jackson, Head of Sustainability at Compass Group, one of Australia’s largest catering businesses, said a future focus on sustainability is a no-brainer. “We’ve got floods, we’ve got fires, we’ve got interruptions in seeding cycles and planting or cropping which is a problem for us. So how do we strengthen our system? With less reliance on animal protein as a whole sector and increased plant-rich diets.” Compass has implemented initiatives to encourage more plant-based menus, which includes a training program designed to educate chefs on the significance of plant-forward menus.
Sustainability as a unique selling proposition
For numerous alternative protein companies, sustainability is at the heart of their mission. However, ample room exists for further commitment and alignment with their values and exploration of where additional sustainability achievements could be met.
Mark Field from Prof Consulting Group acknowledges that sustainability presents “a clear opportunity in today’s market”, although the industry has yet to fully embrace it. He said, moving forward, companies could lean into the space by leveraging initiatives already undertaken by other sectors, such as incorporating sustainable packaging and carbon-neutral products.
Simon emphasises that gone are the days when a plant-based company’s mere existence is a sufficient selling point. Rather, a greater purpose is now essential to get noticed. This is true when communicating with retailers, foodservice companies, and investors, as well as when appealing to consumers through marketing and packaging. He suggests that articulating actions, taken towards sustainability, such as reducing water usage and implementing regenerative agricultural practices, can increase a company’s appeal and tick all the right boxes, as can aligning these sustainability measures with the strategic goals of retail or foodservice customers. “People generally want to deliver sustainable outcomes. We need to make that easy for them.”
Compostable packaging potential
Mauro Pisani, Plant-based Category Manager at Woolworths, offered his thoughts at AltProteins 23 about how suppliers can help consumers see the connection between food purchases and sustainability and use it to help them stand out on the shelf. The challenge lies in customers not understanding hard-to-visualise buzz words like “carbon offsets” and broad statements such as “reduced water usage”. He suggests suppliers capture the more tangible “low-hanging fruit”—compostable packaging.
Mauro argues alternative packaging is the simplest way for a customer to feel they are making a difference with a climate-conscious decision, further reflected when they go to dispose of the packaging in the ground or the green bin. Other industry representatives at the conference also mentioned the need for plant-based meat manufacturers to pay more attention to environmentally friendly packaging.
Other avenues for linking alternative proteins to sustainable outcomes include gaining B Corp certification, a recognition of businesses that demonstrate high social and environmental performance, or carbon neutrality. In April of this year, v2food announced they were B Corp certified and Fenn Foods became Australia’s first plant-based food producer to be certified carbon-neutral by purchasing carbon offsets.
Crucial to the journey toward sustainability and market leadership for alternative proteins is transparency in actions, demonstratable through paddock-to-plate environmental initiatives. Embracing compostable packaging is a tangible and impactful avenue, offering consumers accessible ways to make sustainable choices. The road to sustainability for alternative proteins necessitates both innovation and a compelling narrative that resonates with conscious consumers.