‘Nothing sharpens your focus at the supermarket like 13 interest rate rises’: Cost of living weakens Australians’ sustainability interest

Claims of progress towards a net-zero emissions goal have almost no influence on purchasing behaviour, according to a Porter Novelli and Quantum Market Research study.

With household budgets tightening, Australians are becoming less swayed by environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues such as sustainability when it comes to their food purchasing behaviour.

Claims of progress towards a net-zero emissions goal – such as Coles’ Together to Zero platform – have almost no influence on purchasing behaviour, according to a study from strategic comms company Porter Novelli Australia and research agency Quantum Market Research.

According to Food for Thought: ESG and Consumer Behaviour in Agriculture, 80 per cent of Australians say carbon reduction and net zero has “little to no influence on their food choices.”

However, Porter Novelli’s chief executive officer Rhys Ryan says the increasing cost of running more responsible businesses is only sustainable if it is offset by efficiency gains and increased sales.

“Australians have always been pragmatic, but nothing sharpens your focus at the supermarket like 13 interest rate rises,” says Ryan.

Speaking to Mediaweek, Ryan said the study is a reminder of the significant lengths to which activists have historically gone to garner public interest for a cause.

“Many of us buy free range eggs now, but activism against caged eggs goes back to the 1960s,” he says. “We raised our eyebrows at the relative indifference to activism around farmed fish, lamb and pork.”

The latest research comes in the wake of greenwashing crackdowns from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

In November last year, ASIC confirmed its intensified efforts would be geared towards advertising claims made by investment and superannuation funds.

Earlier this year,  the ACCC published its draft guidance to improve businesses’ environmental claims.

In response, the national industry body for advertisers, the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), created and released an exposure draft of its own Environmental Claims Code for public comment, aimed at advancing the advertising industry towards a sustainable future.

See also: Josh Faulks: Industry needs to work with government and consumers to overcome greenwashing

“Obviously, the easiest way to avoid being accused of greenwashing is to tell the truth,” says Ryan.

Beyond that, he notes Australians are sceptical of brands making grand promises when it comes to ESG and sustainability.

“We are far more impressed by honest communication of real progress against goals – even it is not that impressive yet.”

Ryan states that “responding to increasing pressure from employees, consumers and activists – and  institutional capital – always comes with a cost, which marketers often hope to offset through increased sales as discerning consumers pay a premium for ‘purpose.’”

Yet the majority of Australian consumers aren’t willing to pay for or able to afford this premium, the data shows. 

More than half of respondents in the Food for Thought study said they felt no increasing pressure to purchase food produced more responsibly. 

“Faced with rising costs and culture wars, pragmatic Australians seem to pick and choose which ‘cause’ they will spend more on,” says Ryan. 

“Either way, ESG is here to stay,” Ryan continues, stating that access to finance from institutional capital, retailers pushing their ESG policies down the value chain, activism directed at “laggards”, and government regulation will all continue to progress.

“I doesn’t matter whether [companies are] personally motivated to find sustainable solutions to impress consumers, because their hand will be forced,” he says.

He maintains the only choice food brands have is to offset growing costs with more revenue.

“If you want that, you must communicate your organisation’s  initiatives in a way that actually resonates with Australians.

“Brands should pick one issue on which they want to lead (their sword), and then ensure they don’t become a laggard on other issues (their shield), rather than trying to be all things to all people – and this should be led by their core consumer and their employees.

According to the Ryan, what will capture the attention of Australians are the pragmatic, local, and specific actions of food brands, rather than abstract and intangible claims of net zero and emissions that make it easy to be dismissed as “woke” by one group, and attacked for lack of progress by the other.

“The key takeaway for us is that ESG-based communications don’t work if we’re telling Australians what to think,” says Ryan.

“Starting from a point of universal agreement (fair treatment of animals or fair pay for all your employees, for example) and focusing on specific, local and tangible things you’re doing as a business is going to be far more powerful in brand storytelling than abstract notions of “net zero” or sustainability goals.”

When it comes to their food buying, Australians are foremost concerned about animal welfare  (47%), locally-grown and processed food (45%), followed by fair pay for farmers (43%).

“Less tangible actions – while valuable in lots of ways – do not seem to translate into consumers’ purchase intent,” says Ryan.

Net zero can sound like a buzzwordy pipe dream, but a pilot program to electrify your organisation’s fleet of delivery trucks – with solar and batteries to  fuel them – sounds much more real, even though it is smaller in scope.”

Top Image: Rhys Ryan

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