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Are We Buying And Eating Sustainably?

By Maev Martin
Are We Buying And Eating Sustainably?

Sustainability measures are at the forefront of Irish food businesses, according to research published earlier this month by Love Irish Foods and PwC, while research from the National Dairy Council indicates that Irish consumers have a palate for a sustainable diet. However, a new study carried out by consumer neuroscience agency Future Proof Insights queries the efficacy of sustainable messaging as a purchase driver. Maev Martin reports

Love Irish Foods and PwC’s 2023 SME Food Barometer reveals that over half (57%) of businesses surveyed reported that they had embedded sustainability into their overall business strategy.

For example, the top areas for investment to deliver better sustainability outcomes are energy consumption (45%), packaging reduction (37%) and plastics reduction (37%).

A large majority (72%) reported that embedding sustainability has tangible benefits, with 45% believing it is the right thing to do from a societal viewpoint.

The benefits include: it leads to greater brand trust (42%); and enhanced reputation (37%).


While only 15% of companies have made a carbon-neutral commitment in the last year, half are working towards making this commitment, with the majority (73%) having pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030.

“Sustainability is clearly a priority [for Irish food and drink companies] – being seen as not just the right thing to do but also delivering real potential for efficiencies in their businesses,” said Owen McFeely, director, PwC retail and consumer practice.

“Integration of sustainability into core business strategy is the way forward and it's encouraging to see organisations making progress in this area.

"With growing consumer expectations in the area of sustainability, those businesses who proactively invest are best placed to enhance brand trust and their reputation whilst at the same time reducing their carbon footprint.”

Affordability, Nutrition & Locally Produced


Research published in March and conducted by Coyne Research on behalf of the National Dairy Council highlights the factors considered by Irish consumers when choosing a sustainable healthy diet.

A nationally representative survey was conducted among a sample of 1,000 adults aged 18 and over.

All fieldwork was conducted between the 31 January and 7 February 2023.

The survey revealed that affordability, nutrition, and locally produced foods were ranked as the top-three considerations when choosing a sustainable healthy diet.

84% of respondents said they had taken steps towards eating a more sustainable diet, registering one or more changes they had made towards eating a more sustainable diet, while two in three claimed to be omnivores – they eat meat, fish, and dairy.


Around half said they were trying to only consume what they needed and were trying to reduce food waste through better planning.

“This is really encouraging,” said dietitian Sarah Keogh “as it shows the appetite is there for change and that people are doing what they can within their own means.

"As food prices continue to soar, it’s not surprising that choosing foods that are affordable and nutritious are top of mind and are important considerations as we develop guidance on eating more sustainably too.

"We need to make eating sustainably achievable for as many people as possible.”

Confusion About ‘Plant-Based’


The survey also revealed confusion over the term ‘plant-based diet,’ with almost half surveyed believing it to refer to a vegetarian or vegan diet, with a further 15% saying they did not know what it meant at all.

“Given that it is a term that is used frequently in relation to eating sustainably, this is an important finding,” said Dr Aifric O’Sullivan, assistant professor at UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science.

“The confusion is understandable, however, as the term ‘plant-based diet’ is not consistently defined.

"We would define it as diets based mostly on plants, including cereals and breads, pulses (peas, beans, and lentils), nuts and seeds, but that also include moderate amounts of animal-based products like meat, eggs, fish, and dairy.

“In fact, the Irish food pyramid, which recommends varying proportions of both plant and animal foods, is a good example of a plant-based diet, if we were to follow it.

"We know that Irish diets are not sustainable, from both an environmental and health perspective, so any confusion is a barrier, and we need to be clearer about what we need people to do to eat more sustainably.”

According to Sarah Keogh, if people interpret advice to adopt a more plant-based diet as meaning a vegan diet, this could well be a barrier to people making more realistic changes to their current diets.

“Interestingly, only 4% in the survey said they had moved to a vegan diet,” she said.

“I find that many people last about three months on a vegan diet before going back to their previous diet.

“Making smaller, sustainable changes may have a greater effect in the long run.

"While only 4% said that they had adopted a vegan diet, four times as many said they had cooked more vegetarian dinners during the week, showing that plant-based dishes that also include dairy and eggs are likely to be more acceptable.”

What Is A Sustainable Diet?

Dr Aifric O’Sullivan is also a principal investigator of the MyPlantDiet study project whose goal is to study how to move people to more sustainable healthy diets.

“We are looking at whether giving personalised advice would be more successful,” she said.

“Trying to change a diet too drastically is unlikely to work.

"Some people don’t eat a lot of meat, for example, so general advice to reduce may not be helpful or may lead to nutritional deficiencies.

"Others may need more guidance about how to increase plant foods in their diets while maintaining balance.

"We also forget that high fat and sugar treats, wine, or even coffee have a carbon footprint too, but are not actually essential or even highly nutritious, so it is good to see that a third of people in the NDC survey said they were trying to consume less.”

This is an opinion echoed by Sarah Keogh, who says that each food group provides a unique set of nutrients and balance, and that portion control is a key element of healthy, sustainable diets.

“This research throws up some inaccurate perceptions around how much dairy we consume in Ireland,” she said.

“Around half the sample said we eat about the right amount of dairy, while over a third thought we consume too much.

"The reality is that on average most adults only consume two of their three recommended portions of dairy as milk, cheese, or yogurt.

"As dairy products are nutrient-rich foods and are large contributors to nutrients like calcium, riboflavin, vitamin A and B12 in the Irish diet, we need to be careful about overly simplistic messages to reduce animal foods.”

Attitude Shift Isn’t Changing Behaviour

A recent survey by consumer neuroscience agency, Future Proof Insights looked at how successful sustainable messaging has been in encouraging consumers to shop sustainably.

It revealed that traditional advertising messaging is over ten times more effective at driving purchase intent in consumers than sustainability or environmentally-themed communications.

Future Proof Insights carried out a month-long study using EEG, eye tracking and facial expression analysis to test the impact of 30 messages from 30 brands/products, categorised into three message types: traditional creative & promotional, sustainability, and purpose driven, for both commodity and luxury goods.

“Shifting consumers towards more sustainable behaviours is a challenge that most brands and retailers have tried to tackle over the past decade, at great cost, time and resources,” said Seán Higgins, managing director, Future Proof Insights.

“However, we have repeatedly found that there isn’t much evidence to suggest that the shift in attitude towards sustainability is leading to proportional changes in pro-environmental behaviours.

“The challenge with motivating consumers towards sustainable shopping is that, if you ask people to use more mental effort evaluating the validity of an environmental claim, and then ask them to pay more for a product that offers uncertain outcomes that may occur in the future, what do we expect people to do?,” said Higgins.

“Shoppers are unlikely to choose more demanding and costly products in exchange for a short moment of gratification that they get from doing the right thing on an abstract level for benefits that might accrue to someone else in the distant future.”

Traditional Trumps Sustainable Messaging

The research found that traditional and creative messaging is over ten times more effective than sustainability messaging at driving purchase intent.

“The principle being, we approach what we want and avoid what we find off-putting,” said Higgins.

“While sustainable messages were effective in general at driving approach behaviours, the benefits were marginal and costs too high to justify, relative to traditional creative approaches.

"When comparing luxury with commodity goods, it was found that sustainable messaging is effective for luxury goods, but not effective for commodity goods.

"For luxury goods, the level of consideration is higher and consumers are more willing to expend mental effort to evaluate the decision which makes the sustainable message more receptive.”

By measuring approach-avoidance directly from the participant’s pre-frontal cortex, Future Proof Insights were able to show approach behaviours predict purchase intent, while also showing a significant difference in the impact of sustainable communications for luxury and commodity goods.

Not Part Of The Purchase Process

The Future Proof Insights research also revealed that sustainable messaging is most effective at triggering learning and memorisation activity within the brain.

“However, this doesn’t necessarily reflect brand memorisation,” he said.

“It is most likely the activation of existing memory structures about environmental messaging.

"Sustainability is a powerful message, but it is a risky approach because your brand gets lost as the message can overshadow the brand.

“It’s not that sustainability isn’t important, it just isn’t part of the purchase process.

"A lot of brands feel compelled to showcase their sustainability credentials, but what we’ve found is that sustainability is, firstly, not as effective as creative messaging and, secondly, that sustainability is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

"It is much more nuanced than that.

"It can have a positive effect, as we’ve seen for luxury goods, but a negative effect for commodities.

"These findings will help brands and retailers define strategies that are based on genuine effectiveness for their category of brand and perhaps look at more impactful methods for changing behaviour to do their bit for the environment."

© 2023 Checkout – your source for the latest Irish retail news. Article by Maev Martin. Click subscribe to sign up for the Checkout print edition.

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