Sustainability campaigns & big brands

The cost-of-living crisis is affecting UK consumers’ food choices. Should big brands pause their sustainability campaigns until the cost-of-living crisis has improved?

July 12, 2022
Jennifer John
Sustainability campaigns and the cost-of-living crisis. A view from above of a forest showing footprints
July 12, 2022
Jennifer John

Should brands pause their sustainability campaigns until the cost-of-living crisis has improved?

As inflation soars, many food shoppers are having to make “uncomfortable compromises around health, environment and wider ethical concerns”.

That’s the sobering conclusion of a recent report published by the Food Standards Agency, which investigates how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting UK consumers’ food choices.

Food prices are now a “flashpoint of deep public concern”, the report warns, with 65% of consumers saying they have already changed their food behaviour as a result. And it’s not just low-income households who are being forced to compromise. As the report makes clear: “For most, wider ethical, environmental and food systems interests take a backseat in day-to-day food choices – as a result of financial or time pressures, lack of availability or accessibility.”

These findings highlight a growing conundrum for sustainability-minded brands.

At a time when consumers simply don’t feel able to act on their sustainability priorities, is there any point in talking about environmental credentials? Or should brands pause their campaigns until people have the money – and mental bandwidth – to prioritise sustainable food choices again?

The UK government certainly appears to be advocating the latter. Its new cost-of-living tzar, Just Eat co-founder David Buttress, has just urged brands to cut their marketing spend to help keep prices low for consumers.

But there is every reason for sustainability-focused brands to keep talking about sustainability.

One of the big lessons from previous economic crises is that cutting marketing, comms and advertising in a downturn can seriously backfire. As Mark Ritson explained in a recent column: “In case studies going back a century the story is always the same. The companies that maintained ad spend, or even increased it, during a recession saw little advantage during the hard months of the squeeze. But the minute the green shoots of growth appeared, their growth was spectacularly superior versus competitors that cut back during the recession.”

In other words, if sustainability credentials are important to the long-term prospects of your brand, you simply cannot afford to stop communicating about sustainability right now.

It’s also important for brands to demonstrate they are committed to the environment in good as well as bad times. If sustainability really is as business-critical as everyone has been claiming in their mission statements and CSR reports, it must not be allowed to drop off the agenda now. Otherwise, consumers will be forced to conclude that brands were never serious in the first place.

And make no mistake: people still care passionately about the environment and they want food brands to do the right thing by the planet. The cost-of-living crisis hasn’t changed that. In the FSA research, 60% of consumers said they worry about the impact of our food system on the environment and 58% see the impact of climate change on food production as a major concern for the next three years.

A few tweaks to sustainability comms plans may nevertheless be appropriate. One important takeaway from the FSA report is that consumers find it easier right now to engage with specific, tangible concerns, such as food waste and plastic packaging. More complex or abstract environmental topics – no matter how important – require more attention than many people can muster at the moment.

Focusing on tangible outcomes has, of course, long been important to sustainability comms, but there’s always more brands can do. Now’s the time to review your key messages and challenge yourself to be even more concrete and specific.

There’s no doubt the next few months will be tough, for consumers and brands alike. But food brands that hold firm on their sustainability values – and continue to communicate them – will be in the best position to thrive in the long run.