Climatarianism: Shifting Consumer Priorities & Diets

February 15, 2022 by Leah Wolfe
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According to Innova Market Insights, the #1 trend for 2022 is “Shared Planetary Health”. More than a third of greenhouse gas emissions are a result of agricultural production and the global food system. As more customers are becoming educated about the impact of the global food system on planetary health, they are shifting their priorities when it comes to food purchasing. According to a recent Yale report, more than a quarter of Americans say they have “rewarded” companies that are working to reduce their environmental impact. Perhaps even more importantly, more than a fifth say they have “punished” companies that have a detrimental effect on the environment by avoiding their products.

consumer choice

Shifting priorities, shifting diets

For many consumers, eating for environmental impact means reducing their meat and dairy consumption but not eliminating it entirely, meaning they don’t fall into the vegetarian or vegan categories. And they’re gaining in numbers, while only 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian, 47% of the United States consider themselves “flexitarians”, (especially people between the ages of 24 and 39). These kinds of eaters are increasingly identifying as “climatarians”, “reduceatarians”, and even “regeneratarians”– people who make food purchasing decisions based on the impact the production of ingredients had on the environment.

Even small adjustments in food purchasing habits can add up to a big reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when they become widespread. According to the New York Times, a decrease in red meat consumption by one serving per week, (equal to 1 kg of CO2 per day), reproduced across the population for one year would yield 106 million metric tons less of greenhouse gas emissions.

climate conscious

Why are consumers choosing climate-friendly diets?

A growing share of buyers, especially Gen Z and Millennials, are alarmed by the impacts of climate change and the contributions our food system makes to the crisis. Consumers can substantially reduce their environmental impact by following a diet low in red meat, (and ensuring what little is purchased is from a regenerative operation), high in seasonal fruits and vegetables, and rich in whole grains from carbon negative farms.

Thoughtfully sourced products that meet climatarian and regeneratarian criteria, especially when considered on a large scale of production, can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and water usage while improving labor conditions, soil health, and animal welfare. Beyond the ethical and environmental importance of these sourcing adjustments, brands have this to consider: Gen Z and Millennials want products that align with their values and they have trillions of dollars to spend in the next two decades.  

Contextualizing and communicating climate impact

It’s not enough to just make your products more sustainable, (although that is certainly the first and most important step), in order to tap into this growing market, brands have to be able to contextualize and communicate often complicated sustainability terms and concepts to the average consumer. Consumers want to be educated by brands about the impact of their food choices, and they’ll reward companies for it; according to recent SPINS data, 70% of shoppers will pay more for a sustainable product, and 88% of shoppers would like brands to help them be more environmentally friendly and ethical. It’s certainly not easy, but brands are already finding creative ways to help their customers with the math:

“Airly puts our carbon footprint on-pack and we try to introduce it in a way that clearly communicates carbon, but also gives some context for what the heck that means. We actually say the box you’re holding in your hands removed between 18 to 21 grams of CO2 from the atmosphere and that’s equivalent to between 2,500 to 2,900 beach balls worth of fresh air.”

– Jenn McKnight, Airly

Building consumer trust comes with transparency, accountability, and compelling product storytelling. This is even more critical when appealing to a set of consumers that actively seek out companies that align with their values and penalize them when they are found to be falling short or greenwashing.

“In 2020 Just Salad launched carbon labels on our menu with kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, and given the lack of carbon literacy in our culture right now, that is clearly not enough. So we asked ‘how can we put these numbers in context?’ One of our solutions is comparison to a beef patty– your salad is X percent lower in carbon footprint than that of a quarter-pound beef patty. We compare it to a food that everyone is familiar with.”

– Sandra Noonan, Just Salad

By showing customers where their purchases fall on a spectrum of climate impact helps them make decisions they can feel good about. Using familiar examples to anchor consumer understanding of carbon impact and other sustainability metrics can differentiate your brand and set yourself up for success in an increasingly aggressive regulatory environment. The EU is due to develop a mandatory front-of-pack labeling scheme this year in order to achieve its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.

It seems that widespread carbon and impact labeling is coming one way or another, and consumers are demanding commitments to more sustainable products. It’s up to brands to decide whether they want to spend time and resources building trust in the space now or play catchup later.

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