Carbon Concerns or Confused Consumers? 🌎

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Let’s take a look at carbon. ♻ Carbon footprints, carbon neutrality, carbon negative operations. Sustainability. Each one relates to the other, and all of them are hot topics in the food space.

But the question is, are consumers demanding more sustainable products because they understand what these terms mean and the impact such changes have on the environment? Or do their demands stem from the industry’s continued repetition of the issues’ vast importance? 🤔

And, regardless of the answers, what’s the best way to move forward without heaping excess information on top of everything consumers are already trying to process?

It’s a soapbox 🧼 topic, for sure, so let’s dive in!


Is “Climate Savvy” a Thing Among Consumers?

A quick look at Google searches and trends indicates people are still trying to figure out what all this carbon hype is really about:

  • “What is a carbon footprint“ is a top related query for the keyword “carbon footprint“
  • “Sustainability“ is closely tied to the question “what is it sustainability”

Both topics have been spiking at various rates for the last three months or so, which suggests the average consumer is learning but hasn’t quite grasped the meaning or impact of these issues.

It’s also impossible to determine just with search volume and related queries whether people are seeking to learn more about these terms in order to make a better purchasing decisions or to get clarity about a topic that’s continually in the news but not always well-explained.

It also points to the continuing struggle in marketing and product labeling: Is offering consumers more information about the impact of food on both and climate and health helpful, or does it simply lead information overload? 😵

There’s also the very real risk of delivering misinformation, albeit unintentionally. Calculating the true carbon footprint of a food product is very difficult given the current siloed and fractured state of most supply chains. Translating this data into a meaningful number that could potentially lead to climate-friendly diet decisions may turn out to be a bigger challenge than expected. 🧗🏻‍♂️⛰

Who Really Cares About Carbon?

It’s interesting to note that the idea of a “carbon footprint” stems from the ecological footprint concept William E. Reese and Mathis Wackernagel developed in the 1990s. Their model looks at whether the planet is effectively able to renew the resources used by particular practices and habits. 🌎

Carbon footprint is a subset of this concept. But there’s a rather disturbing twist: It was popularized in 2005 via a British Petroleum marketing campaign.

That’s right; Big Oil 🛢 gave consumers the idea that the individual is largely responsible for making changes to reduce carbon consumption. Therefore, consumer perception of climate issues—as well as who should be held accountable for making improvements—was tainted by skewed marketing from the start.

Carbon Concerns by the Numbers

The fruit of this (and the continuing media emphasis on the climate crisis) is clear from consumer statistics:

  • 96% of people “feel their own actions…can make a difference” in regards to environmental impact
  • 88% of consumers want brands to help them “be more environmentally friendly and ethical” in “daily life”
  • 73% of Gen Z and 68% of millennials are willing to pay more for sustainable products
  • 62% of Gen Z and millennials “prefer to buy from sustainable brands,” compared to 54% of Gen X and the Silent Generation and 39% of Boomers 🛍
  • 42% of European consumers say COVID-19 issues made “ethical or sustainable production methods” of higher importance
  • 41% within the same group consider “reduced environmental footprint” more important than in pre-pandemic times

Young consumers are also more interested in purchasing upcycled products and shopping at thrift stores and consignment-style marketplaces. However, quality reigns supreme as a driver of purchasing decisions across all generations, indicating that being sustainable is likely not enough to tip the scales in favor of plant-based brands that don’t deliver on taste and texture.

Which Came First: Consumer Demand or Product Messaging?

The fact that the majority of consumers “expect” brands to increase sustainability points back to the question of why this expectation exists. One study apparently showed communicating food’s climate impact can reduce dietary carbon footprints by 5%, but are consumers choosing climate-friendly products because they want to—or because brands and/or the media convinced them it’s something they’re supposed to be asking for? 📰📺

Organic and non-GMO products provide a useful lesson here. Consumers see these labels as signals of better, healthier products. Some organic brands have gone so far as to get Non-GMO Project verification (at the risk of suggesting that other organic brands might have GMOs, which is, of course, not the case). The result is more confusion, not more clarity, for the already-overwhelmed consumer.

The solution, then, may not be to pile on more certifications—Climate Neutral, anyone?—but rather to continue the work of reducing environmental impact without necessarily providing all the data upfront.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

Ditch the Labels; Embrace Education

Because this isn’t an area where food brands can back off and wait until consumers catch up, it may be smarter to skip the carbon labeling and focus instead on engaging people in the process of change. 👍🏻

Social media offers the opportunity to show carbon reduction initiatives in action and build awareness with bite-size pieces of information. Long-form video and blog content can serve to provide more detail for consumers who want to do a deeper dive.

The goal must be to leave consumers more informed instead of more confused. 💡Instead of confronting them with yet another number or logo on packaging that’s already stuffed with information, brands can take advantage of their platforms to make change happen in the context of education and community. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

There’s still a long way to go before food’s environmental impact shrinks to the point of carbon neutrality. Factory farming, food waste, supply chain inefficiencies and a host of other factors require big changes, which take time. Using that time to share accessible, actionable information can help consumers make truly impactful choices based on understanding—instead of blindly looking for labels.

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