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Just before the credit crunch, supermarket bosses were vying to out-green each other with promises to cut carbon emissions, packaging waste and food miles. But once the gloom of recession descended, the lexicon changed.
No longer were supermarket chiefs intent on telling their customers how they could help them save the planet. It became all about ways of saving money, as they sought to stop their shoppers defecting to the discount chains such as Lidl and Aldi in the hunt for cheaper food bills.
Organic food producers found that some supermarkets were removing their products from the shelves, as attention shifted to offering customers cheaper food. Organic food sales fell 9.7 per cent in 2009, according to Kantar, the grocery research company, from double-digit growth just a couple of years earlier.
But as the storm clouds begin to recede, green is moving back up the agenda. “I don’t think consumers did stop caring,” says Richard Evans, President of PepsiCo in the UK. “But if you’ve got no money, you have to make tough choices.
“So it is not that you don’t care; it is about what you can or can’t manage.”
The evidence suggests that while customers may have been trading down during the recession, they still keep the environment and where food comes from in minds when shopping.
Marks and Spencer, which has an entire programme – “Plan A” – dedicated to becoming a greener business, conducted research this year that showed that shoppers were still engaged in the issues.
Nearly three-quarters of 2,000 people interviewed said the recession had not changed their level of concern, with one in two interviewees saying they would do more to help protect the environment if it was made easier for them to do so.
IGD, the food and grocery analysis company, says research this year shows that the provenance of food is still important for many consumers, with demand for locally produced food and fairtrade products on the rise against three years ago.
It found that 30 per cent of shoppers interviewed bought local produce in January, up from 15 per cent in 2006, while 27 per cent of shoppers had bought fairtrade products, against 9 per cent three years ago.
“Shoppers are looking for both value and values,” says Joanne Denney-Finch, IGD chief executive. “They are not simply looking for cheaper food in tough times. They also expect the grocery industry to support their moral and ethical values.”
Consumers are asking more of their supermarkets, says Lucy Neville-Rolfe, executive director of corporate and legal affairs at Tesco, the world’s third-biggest retailer by sales.
She says: “Climate change is going to happen and that brings risks to business. Consumers want to know what they can do to help. I believe we have to work with suppliers and consumers and government, because we are interdependent when it comes to tackling these issues.”
To this end, many of Britain’s biggest retailers stepped up their environmental commitments during the recession. Tesco, which pumps out 4.5m tonnes of carbons a year, last year promised to become a zero-carbon business by 2050, with a shorter-term pledge to cut emissions from existing stores and distribution centres in half by 2020.
Marks and Spencer has been looking at ways to make being green easier for shoppers. One scheme has been to encourage customers to recycle clothes by offering them an M&S voucher when they take M&S clothes to an Oxfam charity shop.
Tesco has worked with Oxford University’s environmental change institute to create an index to measure the carbon required to produce, transport, and consume every product it sells. The retailer has worked out the carbon footprint of 500 products while labelling more than 100 products.
It has also provided £25m ($37m) of funding to the University of Manchester to set up a sustainable consumption institute that looks at how consumers can lead greener lives.
Last October, Tesco teamed up with some of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies – including Coca-Cola and Unilever, with a combined turnover of $700bn – to work further on helping consumers limit emissions.
If anything, the recession has invigorated the green consumer, says Ms Neville-Rolfe. “It became good to be green because it saves money. People were cooking from scratch, growing their own [vegetables].
“It is interesting to see how consumers and businesses are coming together on the need to save money. People don’t want to be wasteful and, on the back of that sentiment, you can make progress on tackling climate change.”