Woman shopper customer market

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When we think of people as food citizens, it becomes easier to have conversations and involve them in decision-making

Everything in the food sector revolves around consumers, right? Wrong. Your customers are so much more than consumers alone. Food companies need to get away from the outdated notion of ‘the consumer’, a faceless entity at the end of a long food chain whose power lies only in what or how they shop. We are people – we are food citizens. 

In the 2000s, we were promised a ‘revolution in green consumption’ by Terry Leahy and a ‘new era of democratic consumerism’ by Andy Bond, the respective Tesco and Asda bosses at the time. Despite incremental progress on some sustainability challenges, the flawed consumerist focus prevented radical change happening. We can’t sustain a model of ‘flogging evermore stuff’, of infinite growth on a finite planet.

We need a different mindset and a new language. The good news? What’s emerging to replace consumerism is exciting, with opportunities for progressive food brands to lead the way in this transition. The roles of, and relationships between, businesses and citizens are being redefined. When it comes to food, the story that we are only consumers is obsolete, unjust and incomplete. As a ‘consumer’, our power lies only in our wallet, meaning those in poverty can’t participate.

The forward-thinking path emerging is of food citizenship, which envisions and creates a way for everyone to meaningfully participate in fairer food systems. It is based on three key principles. Firstly, we are naturally inclined to care, and we find a sense of purpose fulfilling. Secondly, we need to have meaningful power to sustain that care and purpose. And thirdly, we need the support of a community to thrive.

Acting on food citizenship principles allows employees and customers an insight and a say in the business. There are lots of ways to do this. Riverford Organic gave power to employees when it shifted to a majority employee-owned model. Co-op Food puts policy decisions in the hands of its members. The Small Food Bakery in Nottingham invites visitors to spend time in the kitchen, talk to the bakers and buy their weekly loaf and local milk.

When we think of people as food citizens, it becomes easier to invite them in, from your customers to employees and shareholders, to have conversations and involve them in decision-making. It also helps produce relationships where trust and honesty become the norm, and allows you to address sustainability challenges together. Food citizenship shows companies how to engage with environmental and social concerns safely and honestly, rather than defensively, naively hoping growing scrutiny will disappear.

In today’s cancel-culture era, we should together create an environment where we can share our mistakes, learn from them and move forward. It’s about becoming better, rather than being perfect. Such a company can more easily gain support of fellow citizens who share its vision.

If your business wants to identify opportunities to involve people differently, ask yourself: how do you refer to your customers? How might you refer to them instead? Find ways to gather people – employees, investors, suppliers and even customers – to exchange ideas. Ask: how can we deliver our purpose and solve societal problems together?

If we really want food systems that are fair for people, planet and animals, we must be open and honest, imperfect but improving, and have bold ambition. Meaningful participation through food citizenship is key to building better food systems. Let’s make it happen.