Author: Zoe Cinzi

How are supermarkets doing on sustainability?

How are supermarkets doing on sustainability?

Our response to Questionmark’s Supergreen list

RetailTrends talks to an expert every week about a notable current development. This time: consumer insights specialist in sustainable food, Durk Bosma, on the role of supermarkets in sustainability.

It is the Dutch national Week of Sustainability. In recent years, retailers have become increasingly concerned with this theme. One of the industries in which it is an enduring theme is the supermarket sector. It is where consumers are confronted every day with a choice of the sustainable alternative.

Last week, Questionmark published its Superlist Green on sustainability among Dutch supermarkets. The conclusions were not too laudatory.

“True. The conclusion of the report was clear: there is still a lot of room for improvement for all supermarkets. It is good that Questionmark has come up with very clear criteria and a clear yardstick. It is clear to all supermarkets that they have to improve, and in what way. In some cases, this could already be done tomorrow, if the supermarkets were willing. The best example is that all supermarkets are advisertising price promotions in the meat category. If they all decide to stop doing that, together or separately, that already has a huge impact.”

So the report appeals to supermarkets. Are those the parties responsible for sustainability in your opinion?

“Ultimately, sustainability is a joint responsibility. Governments can encourage sustainable choices and inform citizens, farmers can produce food more sustainably, factories can try to avoid emissions and operate sustainably, and consumers can make sustainable choices. The supermarket actually brings all those parties all together. So yes, they have a big responsibility. The supermarket influences consumer choices.

The supermarket determines how many sustainable products are bought. Supermarkets can take on the role of informing consumers, but also certainly educating them. What they offer guides what consumers will buy. They are currently not taking the responsibility they could.”

So there are still many opportunities for improvement?

“I think they could do that more. Currently, financial gain still stands above choosing sustainable options. If all supermarkets decided tomorrow to reduce the shelf space for meat, it could be incredibly benificial. Meat is polluting and by giving consumers fewer choices, they also buy less. The flip side is that the supermarkets then make less profit selling meat.”

On the other hand, we see many actions related to sustainability. Is this then for the stage?

“Sometimes I doubt the motives of supermarkets, yes.  A concrete example is Albert Heijn. They have unleashed a whole PR campaign to announce they stopped handing out plastic tokens for shopping trolleys. It is very visible to the consumer, but does not achieve much reduction at the bottom line. It would be much better to find possibilities to reduce plastic packaging or use of plastic in the chain. That would make much more impact. I do doubt the motive then, though. Do you really want to be more sustainable or  do you want consumers to believe you are?”

Does the key to sustainability lie with consumers?

“Yes, but you don’t have to wait for it as a supermarket. Sustainability doesn’t have to come at the expense of margins at all and doesn’t have to cost money. We have to get rid of the idea that sustainable is also more expensive. If you get consumers to eat a more plant-based diet, you make an impact without making their groceries more expensive. You can also choose to stop flying in fruit and vegetables and explain to consumers why you don’t have mangoes all year round. Local vegetables, seasonal, are cheaper and better for the world. You do see that happening more and more. It’s about making the options accessible. That way you get happy customers, maintain the high margin and are sustainable. You can do all that at the same time.”

A quick tour of the fields: how are the specific supermarkets doing?

Albert Heijn does stand out positively as far as I am concerned, although I sometimes doubt their motives. They sell cruise holidays. That creates a very large ecological footprint. That is diametrically opposed to sustainability. But a very good initiative by AH is the Terra brand. It’s good that consumers get to know an umbrella brand that they know is sustainable. The sustainable option becomes recognisable. That is a powerful move. Still, as the market leader, Albert Heijn can do much more, so I also think they should take up that role.

Ekoplaza always was the sustainable organic supermarket. That is commendable, but there is still a lot to be gained in terms of marketing. They bombard consumers with lots of information about why shopping at Ekoplaza is better for the world. The focus is missing, however, as is a clear message about why it is better for the consumer. They mainly think that it is more expensive there.

PLUS has made quite a switch to organic in dairy and now potatoes. Customers can only choose own-brand organic dairy products. That is educating the consumer. There is no more discussion, but unfortunately, they dropped stitches in communication, which made the customer sceptical. They missed an opportunity to explain why organic is better and thus the good initiative got a negative connotation. A real shame.

Plus does come out as the worst in the Questionmark survey and I was surprised by that. Plus itself says it is partly because of the research methodology, but I think the methodology is very transparent. I think they can put the report to good use. 

A positive surprise is also Lidl, which as a discounter shows that expensive and sustainable do not always go hand in hand. Lidl takes big steps, but continues to combine that with low prices. That’s clever. After all, if you sell products at a low price, you have less room to do these things. Lidl has a good mix in its range. They also make a clear statement about the origin of their products, local products. That is sustainable.

Jumbo is a bit quiet when it comes to sustainability. I think Jumbo is mainly looking for a happy consumer, before any real sustainable steps are taken. And let’s be honest, if you sponsor Max Verstappen for years, that is not the right starting point to be taken seriously on this topic.”

Are supermarkets going to continue their sustainability efforts soon?

“All supermarkets are working on it, but the targets are not that concrete yet. As far as I am concerned, supermarkets should not hide behind the fallacy that sustainability comes at the expense of profits because consumers do not want to pay for it. In the future, consumers will also switch supermarkets because one supermarket is more sustainable than another. If that is the case, then a financial argument comes in and suddenly a lot is possible. When social profit and financial profit are no longer opposites at all, then the biggest steps will be taken.”

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When a chip brand advertises its sustainability

When Lay’s advertises its sustainability

Should a potato crisps brand advertise its efforts to be more sustainable? In this article previously shared on (a platform for innovations in marketing) we share lessons from Lay’s latest advertisement campaign in the Netherlands.

When you think about sustainable food, you may not automatically think about potato crisps. If a potato crisp brand reduces its footprint, they might want to shout it from the rooftops. But do consumers really care about the sustainability of crisps? Is sustainability a relevant reason for buying a product that is not consumed with the intention of nourishment, but purely for pleasure? And how should a brand communicate their sustainability message in an effective way? 

A lot of food brands struggle with this. It’s a balancing act. Overdoing it could lead to accusations of greenwashing. But at the same time retailers and consumers demand an improved footprint. And market leaders like Lay’s are expected to pave the road. 

What is Lay’s approach?

Lay’s takes the following route in the Netherlands: They connect sustainability and high quality. And they advertise the high quality of the potatoes, which results in great-tasting crisps. The message: high-quality is related to the fact that Lay’s farmers use crop-rotation in their potato fields and conduct 18,000 quality checks. In the pay-off Lay’s makes an explicit link between the quality of the potatoes and sustainable farming practices:  

100% KWALITEITSAARDAPPELEN, DUURZAAM GETEELD (100% quality potatoes, sustainably farmed). 

So, how do consumers perceive these claims? Do they find them believable and relevant? We shared some of the following clips with our Food Forum members, our community of conscious consumers, to find out*.  Almost 70 members shared their thoughts. Below we highlight the main ones.

When talking about sustainability, focusing on the benefit for the consumer is the way to go.

For most participants, the takeaway message is that ‘Lay’s uses sustainably-farmed, high quality potatoes, to guarantee great taste’, rather than the specific claims about crop-rotation or quality checks. 

When asked about the sustainability of Lay’s potato crisps, about two thirds of participants believe that they are produced in a way that minimally harms the planet (with another fifth being neutral). Very few participants showed scepticism. This could be because the campaign focuses on the high quality of the potatoes, rather than saving the planet, as a result of the ‘good farming practices’. In other words, a win for the consumer first, and for the planet second. 

Claims that include surprising numbers but are not explained further, make consumers sceptical once they give it some thought.  

Declaring that the potatoes are checked 18,000 times, rather than simply saying that they are checked very well, stimulates consumers to start thinking more critically about the message.  

“I was kind of stuck on those 18,000 quality checks. That seems like a lot. What exactly do those checks consist of? That number makes me wonder. Especially since I assume that, with my food anyway, that it meets certain food and commodity requirements.”  

“18,000 checks? Not so clear. What does it mean?”  

This questioning in turn makes them wonder if the brand as a whole is sustainable. 

“I just don’t know if what they claim in these commercials is credible. It is claimed to be sustainably grown, but is that really the case?”  

However, the ad that talked about crop rotation did not raise any questions. No participant asked about how often this happens, which crops they rotate with, or what effect it has. The claim was vague enough to not raise any suspicions. For some participants, crop-rotation is a familiar concept, which made them not think twice about this claim. Surprisingly, it also did not raise the question about whether every farmer does this for the sake of the health of their soil.  

How important is sustainability for Lay’s? 

All-in-all, do consumers believe that Lay’s is in fact doing its best to be sustainable? On face value, most seem to believe so. However, when they think about it more carefully they doubt some of the specific claims. But that does not stop Lay’s from being their favourite crisp brand.  

So, as a market leader, Lay’s gets away with communicating a rather vague message about the quality of their product related to the sustainable farming of their potatoes. Consumers don’t care that much and find proof of the quality themselves (by eating). 

But wait.  

Crop rotation is a common practice for every potato farmer. It is even a legal requirement in the EU. Failing to do so will deplete the soil and increase the chances of diseases, which both in turn increase the need for usage of chemicals. 

And the message about the quality checks is extremely vague. Of course every farmer checks for quality. Nobody knows which 18,000 checks there are and what exactly is checked.  

So, Lay’s is telling us that they do something that they are required to do and that everybody else does. And by doing so, project an image of being a caring company. And they get away with it. How does that sound? 

What if Lay’s actually wanted to be a sustainable brand (and be seen as such by consumers)? 

If they do something truly extraordinary in terms of quality or sustainability, why don’t they communicate that? If Lay’s wanted to be sustainable and also be seen as sustainable it could do a lot more than just meet the minimal legal requirements.  

If a brand truly wants to be sustainable and at the same time commercially successful, there are a few steps to take. They require a combination of understanding your actual impact and understanding what consumers perceive to be impactful. First of all, that understanding allows you to work on those things that actually lower the overall footprint. It also allows a brand to communicate about those efforts that consumers find relevant in a language that consumers actually understand.  

READ MORE: check out our article about understanding sustainability in your category 

Please note: we are not saying that brands should improve the footprint only on those elements that consumers find appealing. On the contrary, sustainability efforts should be focussed on those areas that really matter. But communicating about those improvements to the public should focus on those elements that consumers understand and find relevant. That way a sustainability message can actually resonate with consumers. 

So what do consumers find relevant?

We don’t know this specifically about potato crisps. But in a recent study for EIT Food about which elements of sustainability consumers find most important (in general), we found that ‘improving soil condition’ was not high on the list at all. What came out as most relevant? This is the top 3: 

  • Water usage,  
  • lack of synthetic pesticides,  
  • and recycling properties of the food’s packaging. 

Now this list shows what consumers find important in general. Lay’s could have figured this out for their own product. And most likely water usage, pesticides and packaging are high on the list for potatoes as well. Let’s assume that a study confirms this. What could they do with this knowledge? 

Parent company PepsiCo says they have a program aimed at reducing water usage. They say they have a program aimed at improving recycling properties of the food’s packaging: 

“We also try to use green manure and drip irrigation, among other things, as much as possible and encourage biodiversity.” according to sustainability manager Rozanne Drost 

And from the same article:  

“To keep our crisps fresh and crispy, an aluminum layer is needed. However, this layer is so thin that it allows us to meet the requirements for 100 percent recyclable mono-material. As a result, our bags can simply be thrown away with the PMD waste.” 

Why not communicate about these initiatives and make these the centre of the campaign? communicating those improvements would help consumers understand why these crisps are better for the planet than other brands’. And it would stimulate the competitors to improve their foot print as well. 

All in all, it seems Lay´s misses a great opportunity to educate consumers about making sustainable choices and proving that their products are indeed better for the planet. Which is a shame, because this is what market leaders are supposed to do: lead the way. 

*This study was not commissioned by Lay’s, but done at the initiative of Future of Food Institute, with the aim of better understanding communication of sustainable farming practices.  

Find out more:

Contact us to find out more about the results, or how we can tailor consumer insights to your product or company. 

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