It’s been almost two years since the publication of Better by half: A roadmap to less and better meat and dairy, which identified 5 high-impact actions for the retail sector to implement to facilitate a transition to less and better in the UK. A new study interviews senior retail representatives to explore their perceptions of sustainable diets, the strategies they’re adopting to provide and promote ‘less and better’, and the challenges they face in doing so, providing insight as to the progress that’s been made on this agenda.
Does ‘less and better’ feature in retailers’ understanding of sustainable diets?
Retailers generally describe sustainable diets as healthy diets with a lower environmental impact than current consumption, but ‘less and better’ seldom features in their understanding. Just three retailers interviewed spoke about less animal protein relative to plant protein, and none mentioned ‘better’ meat and dairy. While they’re aware of the issues surrounding meat and dairy production and consumption, they don’t seem to be top of mind when thinking about what a sustainable diet is, suggesting a need for retailers to view sustainable sourcing and healthy diets more holistically.
Taking a comprehensive view of the issue, one retailer has set an integrated policy and targets for sustainable diets. Framing the strategy in the context of Net Zero has facilitated buy-in from senior stakeholders, an approach which other retailers could learn from and replicate.
What are retailers doing to help customers consume ‘less and better’?
Encouragingly, retailers are driving action on ‘better’ meat and dairy, primarily by focusing on livestock feed and farm management. Working collaboratively with suppliers has enabled retailers to make significant progress on these two areas. A focus on sourcing British meat and dairy is strategic for many retailers, allowing them to influence production practices in a positive way.
In terms of demand side measures, retailers are developing and promoting new plant-based products, with the ambition that these will displace meat and dairy sales. Tesco for example has publicly committed to increase sales of plant-based products by 300%, and it is anticipated that other retailers will soon follow suit. However, no retailer has set a target to reduce purchasing of meat and dairy products, and none are implementing strategies to reduce purchasing of meat and dairy products. If we are to achieve a 50% reduction in consumption of meat and dairy products by 2030, more direct intervention is urgently needed.
What challenges to driving progress do they face?
Retailers see it as their responsibility to improve supply chain sustainability so that customers don’t have to worry about the environmental impact of the products they’re buying. The commercial benefits of sustainability are becoming clearer with rising consumer demand – the development and promotion of more sustainable products, which often carry a price premium, can give a retailer an edge over its competitors.
Retailers don’t see it as their role to actively drive a meat reduction trend. The promotion of sustainable diets is seen by some retailers as a way of positively engaging with customers and improving brand loyalty, but retailers are unwilling to take action that could threaten the livelihoods of meat and dairy farmers, who they have a close relationship with. It’s always going to be challenging for a business to sell less of something, particularly high value products such as meat and dairy. The retail business model is focused on growth, preserving freedom of choice, and developing, providing and promoting a wide range of products that meet diverse customer needs. Factors outside the retailers’ control, such as the low price of intensively produced meat and dairy products, need to be addressed by government, while civil society have a role to play in influencing demand for meat and dairy products. Retailers state that if demand signals change, they will adapt accordingly.
Joanna Trewern is Sustainable Diets and Behaviour Change Specialist at WWF-UK and PhD researcher at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability. Her PhD research explores how food retailers can facilitate a transition to ‘less and better’ meat and dairy in the UK. You can read the full study here.