For today’s retailer or manufacturer, the green agenda is – or should be – top of mind, as it is for the consumer.
In tougher times, tougher choices are made. Buying choices will be made on what’s important for that customer at that time. If a product or a certification scheme fails to make the grade, the commercial realities will judge it hard. This is a crowded space with different assurance systems, each with their own aims. With food policy academic Tim Lang calling for label simplification, are the NGOs in danger of confusing the customer and losing the engagement they have fought for? How does the shopper choose? Is it about production systems (Soil Association), husbandry (RSPCA), environment (Rainforest Trust), people (Fairtrade) or food miles?
Many of these schemes are mutually exclusive, with different protocols, standards and aims. During harsher economic times, clarity of message is essential. Can the NGOs keep the public’s faith? Or will their critics be proved right that at the first hurdle consumers will put their pockets above their principles? I’m certainly not calling time for the sector, but I believe there will be a change in the relationship between the assurers and the consumer, because after all it’s about trust. Why should assurers be scrutinised?
Looking back over the past decade, there are good grounds to ask searching questions. There is an overwhelming desire for a sense of place and context for the food we buy today. This is combined with an emerging uneasiness, following successive food scares, with mass anonymised food. After all, we are constantly being told, usually via TV, that there is some better way to feed our families. Or is it that the consumer is now armed with more insight and power to change the shape of the supply chain?
The consumer and the media will continue to drive up awareness, which will be a challenge for retailers, manufacturers and, most importantly, for those bodies that certify the quality of our food. Trust is not easily earned, but now it also has to be regularly reinforced. The ability to ask questions and probe will be a necessity, especially if standards underpin a price premium.
If we want to see the further expansion of the sector, there has to be a step change in how information is made available to the consumer. We should see a new way of providing assurance, which would benefit the whole industry as even established brands have to ensure their practices are up to scrutiny. So where is this green agenda taking us as an industry?
The green agenda is greater than its constituent parts, although individually each one represents a huge change in how we look at food. There is a move, seeded by the green agenda, for ‘radical transparency’. Many believe CSR targets and yearly reporting is where we have to go. But for me there is a step beyond. Assurers and all in the supply chain need to question whether they are as transparent as commercially sensible. Ready meal retailer Cook is inviting customers to visit its kitchens. Can this be taken further?
The consumer has the power of choice and is the ultimate king maker. The price is greater openness and transparency. The reward: a loyal and trusting customer.
Steven Esom has been in the retail industry for 25 years and held senior management positions with Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.