Embarking on a corporate food odyssey

Consumers want to eat more sustainably, but they lack the knowledge to do so. New research shows that grocers could be a catalyst of change.

Did you know that the food sector is a major emitter of greenhouse gases? The already staggering emissions numbers start to multiply when we consider the land we use to produce our food. That land might have, until recently, been a functioning forest ecosystem. It only takes days to chop down a section of forest and more than a generation to grow it back.

Just think: the global food sector produces 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions, whereas the entire transportation sector produces less than 1/5. Your dinner might be more harmful than your commute to work…

But choices around food are complex and include constant trade-offs:

  • what I desire
  • what is good for me
  • what tastes good
  • what is affordable…

The sustainable information dilemma

Reliable nutritional information that could help our rational side make decisions is difficult to come by. Information that will sway our hangry side is even more elusive. Data on the actual climate impact of our food choices is almost non-existent.

To obfuscate matters further, by the time food reaches grocery store shelves, where we make the vast majority of our food decisions, over 85% of the emissions have already been released. We, as consumers, are essentially making our climate-related choices about food while wearing blinders. Yet, our decisions can have an immense impact on the food system’s upstream processes. In other words: what we buy decides what is supplied.


To realise this potential for change, people need guidance, clarity and simplicity. We think grocery retailers are perfectly positioned to support consumers in these needs. When looking at the industry-wide emissions breakdown above, you might say: “…but retailers are just a tiny part of the problem…”. With a ‘measly’ 4% emissions contribution, this is true.

But looked at from a different angle – namely, solutions – grocers prove to be the only relevant gateway to affect change on both a consumer- and industry level. With their upstream industry ties and a consumer pool of millions, they are potentially the most significant catalyst and platform for complete systems transformation.

And people are looking for change.

How do we know? We asked them.

We ran a comprehensive, 4-month market study across Austria, Switzerland and Germany to understand what drives consumer behaviours in the region. By conducting over 40 in-depth ethnographic interviews and cross-validating results with a survey of nearly 2000 respondents, we dove deep into consumers’ lives. We investigated their behaviours and built an understanding of their attitudes toward sustainable food choices. To crystallise the industry’s role to play within this, we then connected insights gathered from the study to market opportunities for retailers and other value chain players. Why? We want to help them drive sustainable food system change, both on a consumer- and industry level.

Four promising areas for sustainable change

Through our research, we identified four main areas in which food retail and relevant industry players can affect sustainable behavioural change among consumers, as well as within their own businesses:

  1. sustainability literacy
  2. health & wellbeing
  3. food science
  4. food waste

Let’s take a closer look at what we discovered.

1. Sustainability Literacy

People in DACH — Germany, Austria, & Switzerland — are deeply concerned about sustainability. Indeed, they rank it as the most urgent challenge of our times. But they lack a common understanding of the concept and struggle to identify and implement sustainable habits within their daily diets. 75% say they can’t identify sustainable food.

This complexity drives people to rely on old habits and be guided by common myths and false intuitions – like going plastic-free, rather than reducing meat intake. And with concern compounded by confusion, cynicism is increasing. 2/3 of the people we spoke to doubt there is much time left to solve the increasingly urgent sustainability issues we face. No wonder they seek tangible guidance.

2. Nutrition & Health

Most people develop their understanding of healthy nutrition through a mix of word of mouth, upbringing and experimentation. One common theme is the idea of balance, with 73% of respondents believing that a combination of vegetables, meat and fish is the optimal diet.

Yet, confusion and prejudices prevail about what healthy eating really entails: 1/3 believe healthy food is more expensive than regular groceries, 1/3 find it less “tasty”, and 1/2 are convinced it is more time-consuming to prepare. Whether these convictions are based on experience or hearsay appears inconsequential.

Nonetheless, for the majority, health and wellbeing remain the most crucial decision-making factors shaping their dietary choices. They also correlate strongly with sustainable food habits, positioning them as effective intervention points to promote environmentally-friendly diets.

3. Food Science

Sustainable food innovations are on the rise. Venture capital investments into EU food start-ups have increased threefold between 2020 and 2021 alone. But while business is seemingly booming, consumers are surprisingly sceptical. 47% of our respondents have tried meat alternatives, but haven’t made them a regular part of their diet.

Barriers to adoption are diverse, spanning health (e.g. additives), taste, price, and identity concerns. Within this, contradictions abound. Take health, for example: while deep distrust towards alternative protein ingredients and additives exists, people who report healthy diets are significantly more likely to regularly consume such products. Overall, social sentiment (household preferences, friends’ opinions, etc) plays a particularly crucial role in alternative protein perception and adoption, often starting with one person who inspires the rest (i.e. influencer effect).

4. Food Waste

With most food waste occurring in the home (59% in Germany alone), people lack a fundamental awareness of food waste’s negative environmental impacts. They’re unaware of how much waste they actually produce and how they can best reduce their food waste. Across DACH, people create 53% of food waste because they forget about the food (e.g. in the back of the fridge), and 38% because they buy too much or too large packages.

And, while most report being highly interested in waste-reducing offerings (e.g. ugly produce sections, waste-based products, circular waste collection and repurposing schemes), the main barrier to adoption is visibility and awareness, as 52% of consumers say that they simply don’t know these options exist.

The seven sustainable transformation pathways

But what to do? Based on our findings, we developed seven transformation pathways to aid food retailers and relevant industry players in contributing to a sustainable food transition.

These seven pathways function as a holistic framework. They offer organizations an array of innovative opportunities across departments, value chains and consumer-facing functions. They provide timely perspectives, aim to inspire differentiating ideas, and can be selected and adapted to diverse organisational needs and priorities.

But what can we do right now – on an everyday, human level?

Quick personal actions towards sustainability

  • Wasting less food helps. It is within your control & best-before dates are meaningless.
  • Switching to a plant-based diet, or even just lowering your meat consumption is the single biggest impact you can make.
  • Single-use plastic bags emit less than paper & cotton bags. Paper bags should be used 3x, and cotton bags 131x to have a lower impact than single-use plastic bags.
  • Always buy perennials when you can, they are more drought resistant, retain the nutrient-rich topsoil in winter and absorb fertilizer more effectively. Several new variants are entering the market, including Kernza, a perennial wheat.
  • We produce enough food to feed the world. The FAO estimates that food loss (on the field) and food waste (in the kitchen or at the table) could feed 1.26 billion hungry people.

Also consider…

  • Sustainable packaging
  • Seasonal (instead of imported outside of EU, air shipped or grown in a heated greenhouse)
  • Buy products approaching ‘best use before’ date
  • Decide on quick wins food (i.e. pasta made of yellow peas or kernza)