What do European consumers think about sustainable food?

What do European consumers think about sustainable food?

What do European consumers think about the sustainability of their own food behavior? What are their perceptions of sustainability? Can we measure determinants of sustainable food behavior or find similarities across European countries?

Identifying determinants is important. With that knowledge, we can anticipate which behavior consumers are willing to change under which conditions, and translate this information into metrics and models for generating a sustainable and healthy diet.

To get to know what is at stake in European consumers’ minds, a team of Dutch SUSFANS researchers conducted a web-survey among 5043 respondents from five countries, namely the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, France and Italy. The goal was to quantify per country which aspects of sustainability are important to consumers, how often certain sustainable behavior is reported and what the psychological drivers of this behavior are.

View of sustainable food consumption

Four aspects of sustainable food consumption were often mentioned in all countries:

  1. Seasonal fruits and vegetables
  2. Reducing food waste,
  3. Water use and
  4. Use of natural resources.

However, perceptions differ per country: Seasonal fruits and vegetables were particularly often mentioned by the respondents from France (49 percent) and food waste by the participants from Denmark ( 41,3 percent). In addition, in the Netherlands air and water pollution is often perceived as an aspect of sustainability. In Denmark, organic food consumption and animal welfare are often mentioned. In the Czech Republic, healthy food and land use stand out. In France, local and regional food as well as transportation distance of food play a big role. Finally, in Italy, food safety is raised more often and considered important for consumers.

Sustainable food behavior and willingness to pay

When asked about their sustainable food intake, most respondents mentioned  consuming seasonal or local food. This is followed by free-range products/products with a sustainability logo/smaller portions, followed by organic/fair trade products. Least mentioned by consumers was the intake of  vegetarian products.

Choices and ranking are quite varying between countries. For example in the Netherlands, sustainable food behavior is relatively low, especially with regard to seasonal or local products. In Denmark more intake of organic or fair trade and free range products or products with a sustainability logo and smaller portions were reported. Read the paper for a complete ranking on different themes.

Results show that consumers are in general not particularly willing to pay extra for a sustainable product. Noticeably, Italians are most willing to pay extra.

Meat replacement

When the survey participants were asked about openness to replacers of meat, they are mostly open to animal-based products like fish, cheese and eggs.  
Their second alternative was plant-based products. But they did not really like it: On average, the respondents were not so open to this. Ranked last are new products like insects or in-vitro meat.

Consumers are thus most open for the alternative that has the least benefits in terms of environmental sustainability. For a replacement of meat by plant-based alternatives there seems to be a longer way to go and for new products consumers are generally not open. 

Differences between countries

Results show that respondents from the Czech Republic are more open to animal-based products instead of meat than in France. France and Italy are more open than those in The Netherlands and Denmark. Nevertheless it was considered the best alternative in all countries.

Regarding plant-based alternatives, results show that respondents in Italy and France are more open than in the other countries. Also Denmark is less open to plant-based alternatives than the other countries.

Finally, France is more open to new types of products as alternatives for meat than all the other countries except the Netherlands. The Netherlands is more open to new types of alternatives than Denmark and the Czech Republic. Czech Republic consumers are less open to new alternatives.

Unknown: Sustainable consumption

Consumers are on average not really conscious about sustainable consumption. Consumers are most conscious about sustainable consumption from an  economic viewpoint, caring for long-term economic and personal well-being, followed by a social viewpoint which entails a maximum  beneficial impact on society. Consumers are least aware of environmental aspects of sustainable consumption such as recycling and energy. 

Drivers of sustainable behavior

Country, demographics, consumer characteristics and food choice motives are important drivers of sustainable behavior, openness to meat alternatives and willingness to pay for sustainable products. 

For example, the social norm (the extent to which one believes that people around them are eating sustainably), interest in sustainable food consumption and high sustainability food motives predicts consumption of sustainable products.

Although consumers do report  to be somewhat negative that they can effectively influence sustainable food consumption as an individual. 

Europeans tend to reduce environmental impacts

Across all countries, reduced environmental impact is the sustainability domain that is ranked most often as most important, followed by viable and socially balanced agri-food businesses. Balanced and sufficient diets scores on the third place and global food and nutrition security on the last place. Interestingly, the countries differ to a large extent in terms of ranking the sustainability goals. In Denmark, for example, global food and nutrition security scores highest whereas overall, this aspect ranks lowest.