When considering sustainable food products, consumers include price

Scientists must include the consumer perspective.
‘Consumers contributed many aspects of the concept of sustainability that I would not have thought of.’ Photo Shutterstock

‘Consumers have a different perspective on sustainability than, for example, scientists. They feel that ethical and fair production is also part of sustainability’, says Lenneke van Bussel, who obtained her PhD on consumer perspectives on sustainable nutrition this week.

Van Bussel’s research shows that the consumers’ concept of sustainability is much broader than just environmental indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions, the use of fossil energy, and water. ‘I was rather surprised. Consumers contributed many aspects of the concept of sustainability that I would not have thought of. They frequently cited local and organic food options and equitable production as aspects of sustainable nutrition.’

A question of definition

‘Moreover, consumers include the food chain as a whole when considering sustainable nutrition, from production to recycling plastic packaging. But also aspects such as healthiness, flavour and price’, Van Bussel clarifies. ‘Consumers frequently associate sustainable products with the words tasty, healthy and expensive.’

Van Bussel’s results show that the definition that is currently used to measure the sustainability of a particular diet (Greenhouse gas emissions, fossil energy usage and water usage) is not aligned with the consumers’ definitions. ‘Consumers are often completely unaware of the environmental impact of, for example, a side of meat.’

Freedom of choice

Hence, education to generate awareness of the environmental definition of sustainability is key, says Van Bussel. But there must be full transparency in this communication. ‘Because you may want to steer the consumer in a particular direction, you also want to uphold freedom of choice. Otherwise, discussions will focus solely on people feeling they are being robbed of their meatballs.’

At the same time, Van Bussel acknowledges that the complete definition of sustainability is too complex for consumers to fully understand. ‘By providing insight into the key aspects of sustainability, consumers can make a weighed decision because a healthy and sustainable option should also be the tastiest and most convenient.’

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