Department of Business Administration

Lund University School of Economics and Management

Food of the future – is it sustainable?

Published: 2017-10-31

Consumer confidence in sustainable food is constantly increasing in countries where sustainability issues are important and discussed in relation to food. And in countries where the state is deeply involved in the labeling system, faith in sustainability labeling is growing. This can be seen in the research conducted by Sofia Ulver, Associate professor at LUSEM.

Photo: IStock

Sofia Ulver, expert in marketing, brands, trends and consumption, recently participated in the conference "Livsmedelsforum 2017" about Sweden's new food strategy and the change in the food chain we experience. The subject is more interesting than ever.

"Consumers of today make demands on their food and we can see a new trend that includes both politics, ethics and sustainability aspects. The keywords for many people when buying food are green, poison-free and healthy. Willingness to pay for sustainable products, however, varies greatly between social groups, geographic location and product categories," Sofia says.

Sustainable food in the future

In the future and preferably already today we want to buy and eat sustainable. But what is sustainable food? Goods can be packaged and presented as sustainable, which increases consumer confidence. If consumers find that many producers with sustainability focus are well established their confidence increases and even more if the state is involved in the sustainability labeling. Sofia has looked into how sustainability thinking generally begins. In Sweden and in most European countries, the vegetables and fruits are the gateway, this is where most people start their sustainability trip. In Denmark, however, it is via dairy products.

After An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, an American documentary about Al Gore’s campaign to enlighten people on global warming, the awareness exploded and many people started to consider things like ethics, sustainability and toxic ingredients. "Sustainability" as a sign of the times is for consumers almost as much about bodily health and social well-being for the people, as about the environment, although the environmental aspect tends to take over and also in a positive way absorb the other aspects.

How do the consumers find their way in the jungle?

The awareness increases but how do we know what is sustainable and how do we make the right choice? "Nobody really knows," Sofia says. ”There are no experts so far and we lack information. There are specialists in specific sustainability areas but general rules on what is sustainable are hard to make. We have to investigate a lot more before we get the overall picture. Questions like how far the products have been shipped, how possible toxics have been checked and how the specific farm is organised must be asked. Sustainable consumption issues are becoming increasingly political. Consequently it is not easy to do grocery shopping. However, there are apps that can support the consumer in the sustainability jungle. Several, of brands completely independent, apps are now spreading which help the customer to do the right choice and to shop sustainable."

Usually consumers have ideas about what they want but they are also affected by trends. Regardless of sustainability, trends are interesting. Trends can be strong consumer trends and be considered temporary but are often social changes that are associated with changes in the global economic system which, in turn, can show cultural manifestations. Many brands try to catch popular phenomena and "hook up" which can create a powerful impact. Is sustainable food a temporary trend or is it a change in society? ”Not temporary, sustainable food will continue to be important until it becomes standard!”

Status to make moral and ethical choices

"A general trend that seems to be here for good is the increased environmental and health awareness," Sofia explains. Health, environment and non chemical ingredients have been strong consumer motives for a while now and in making moral and ethical choices there is nowadays high status. The biggest consumer barriers have so far been price and availability. However, the willingness to pay for sustainable products between social groups differs. A phenomenon of ”behavioral spillover effect” can be seen in the context of sustainability meaning that the people already used to these thoughts are 1.5 times more likely to purchase from other sustainable product categories.

Sofia believes that consumers' approach to new sustainable products is predictable. Today's "most dedicated segment" of 10% will be 20% within 5 years, which brand new research shows. It seems that the food of the future is sustainable, at least if the customer may decide.

Sofia Ulver about sustainable food and consumer culture

Den nygröna människan
(2012, Rapport för Jordbruksverket)

’Authentic Food’ and the Double Nature of Branding
(2016, Routledge)

Sociality and Competition in a State Individualist Consumer Culture  (2017, Palgrave Macmillan)