With Consumer Trends changing and new demands becoming apparent, we spoke to the World Resources Institute’s Senior Behavioural Scientist Sophie Attwood to find out how we can maintain and learn from the new momentum behind plant-based products and the partnerships necessary to support good buisnesses with new collaborations.

The current crisis has heightened consumer demand for plant-based products. How can we maintain and learn from this momentum as we look to build a more resilient food system?

It’s a really difficult time for restaurants at the moment, and a lot is changing very rapidly for the food service sector. We are hoping that, in the coming weeks and months, food service providers will see that encouraging diners to choose more sustainable options, like plant-based meals, can form an useful part of the recovery from COVID-19.

So far, we’ve seen some interesting data on consumer retail trends since the start of the pandemic[1], suggesting that while plant-based product sales are up, so are sales of meat, meaning overall retail market share for plant-based products has actually dropped this year.  It remains to be seen whether restaurants will experience similar patterns once they re-open. It’s plausible that consumers may want to buy more meat to compensate for meals not eaten out in the last few months during lockdown, or, they might instead want to buy more plant-based dishes, if the virus has led to increased concern about health and food safety. We need to wait to see which way this will go, and then work with the food service sector to help direct momentum as needed.

What partnerships are necessary to support collaboration with global food businesses, to encourage consumers to change their food choices? Can you give any successful examples?

Our programme at the World Resources Institute (WRI) – the Better Buying Lab – uses just this type of partnership model. We try to bridge the gap between academic research on food choice and the food industry, which is ultimately responsible for making sure that this research influences consumer choices. We’ve found this model to be a great way to translate research into the real world, as well as facilitating greater understanding of the type of evidence that industry really needs in order to create change at scale – it’s a great way to cross fertilise ideas between both sectors.

The ‘Behavioral Playbook’ we published at the beginning of 2020 – summarising 57 behaviour change techniques to encourage consumers towards more plant-based dishes – has really helped support our collaboration with food businesses in this area. Most recently, we’ve combined this content with a virtual workshop to support food providers in building an evidence-based behaviour change strategy, tailored to their context, to promote more sustainable food choices.  This has been a really useful way for food businesses to structure their sustainable food initiatives, in addition to which, we’re actually conducting some trials of our own to give a definitive answer on which approaches work best.

What developments will be a priority for the World Resources Institute over the next 3-6 months?

As with many organisations  – we are watching and waiting to see the ongoing impact of COVID-19. We want to keep on working with restaurants, to support their recovery while continuing to engage on the issue of sustainable diets. And these two areas don’t have to be at odds – for example, lots of the approaches that we recommend as ways to encourage consumers towards plant-based options are based on sound marketing principles that can promote sales overall. We are now working to understand how best to combine and blend these approaches for maximum impact.

Other areas that we are also looking into this year is younger people – so called Gen Z – understanding to what degree this, the largest generation and our future, have engaged with the sustainable diets agenda and where we may be able to influence this positively. We are also conducting some research on the impact of climate messaging on food choice – there is a lot of interest in this question at the moment from retailers and we’d like to offer some useful insights.

How do you think the current global pandemic will change the future of food? (over the short, medium and long-term)

Looking at the impact of previous pandemics on food choices, like SARs or swine flu, what we tend to see is some short-term changes in what people eat, which then tend to normalize over time. Slightly more sticky are changes in how consumers perceive the safety of certain foods following disease scares – poultry after avian flu, or beef after the BSE crisis, for example – so this is an area to watch.

In my view, COVID-19 will add one more reason to a growing list of reasons to shift away from an overreliance on animals for food, which may accelerate the background trend in plant-based eating. However, once systems have returned to ‘normal’, it’s likely that ‘normal’ choice drivers will return as bigger factors influencing what consumers buy – price, taste, convenience. Linking back to how we go about promoting plant-based foods – virus or not – these are the major things for retailers and food service providers to consider.

[1] gfi.org

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