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“The plant-based revolution; can emerging consumer choices sow the seeds of sustainable success?”

08.02.2019

This January, a new burger restaurant opened its first UK operation at The Oracle in Reading. At first glance Miami Burger looks like most other fast-food restaurants, offering breakfast, burgers, hot dogs and shakes. Looks can be deceiving; you won’t find a beef patty, chicken wing or deep fat fryer here. Miami Burger’s USP is to offer “great tasting fast food without the bad stuff”. The ‘bad stuff’ isn’t just meat, it’s saturated fats and sugar in general.  They also ‘have beef’ with non-recycled materials, plastics and leather, with all three absent from their packaging (guests are, I am sure, welcome to wear what they please). This is all great stuff, but can one restaurant chain, however inspirational, change the world?

Miami Burger is part of a new wave of dining options we are seeing within the portfolio that respond to rising consumer interest in conscious consumption – whether that’s around their own health and well being or that of the planet. Notdogs at Bullring is playing to the same crowd and @Pizza at Grand Central, whilst not veggie, lead very much with their sustainability credentials.

So, it’s not about one restaurant changing the world – it’s about you and me, consumers, which is of course exactly how it should be. Customers are increasingly expecting products where the origin is transparent, fair and free of exploitation. The popularity of Veganuary this year – reported to have received record sign-ups[1] – is just the latest indicator of the shift in consumer choices and behaviours, and it’s not just our own health this may be helping. As we struggle to make headway in reducing global carbon emissions, the focus has shifted to meat production in particular, one of the biggest contributors to our environmental impacts, and the significant carbon benefits of eating less of it.

Some of the statistics are surprising. Producing a kilo of beef takes an estimated 15,000 litres of water, 330 m2 of land and generates 16 kg of carbon. Poore and Nemecek’s[2] fascinating research on the environmental impacts of agriculture concludes that the food supply chain is responsible for 26% of human generated greenhouse gas emissions, sparking the debate about the potential benefits of reducing our meat consumption.

The UN estimates that 70% of the world’s fresh water consumption goes into agriculture[3], while further data suggests that meat production alone uses roughly a third of the globe’s crop land, water and grain[4]. Part of this impact is the transfer of land from forest to crop production to feed intensively reared animals. This is particularly problematic in countries where acres of rainforest are destroyed to make way for feed crops, giving the double whammy of more emissions from production and less rainforest to absorb them. Added to this is the production of methane by cattle – a highly potent greenhouse gas, and the impact of nitrous oxide from manure as a potential land contaminant.

Carnivorous considerations aside, consumers and brands are beginning to acknowledge and respond to evidence of the environmental impacts of plant-based supply chains, whether around intensively-grown avocados and almonds, or apples flown in from New Zealand. A report published by Morrisons, which has introduced vegetable boxes with ‘wonky’ and seasonal British-grown products, found that two-thirds of respondents would prefer to buy British, although only 23% of the fruit and vegetables eaten in Britain are grown here[5].

When it comes to calls to hold back our meat consumption, consumer opinion and behaviour is shifting. Customers are putting their money where their mouth is and brands are responding, not only for Veganuary. Nando’s, famous for its chicken, continues to introduce new meat-free options to its menu and Greggs’ infamous vegan sausage roll has sold out day after day across the country since its launch. The market is also certainly not limited to food; Morphe’s 18 piece vegan make-up brush set, Dr. Martens vegan 1460 8 Eye Boots and Stella McCartney’s vegan logo tote bag are all catching our attention.

Whatever our personal preferences as consumers, as retailers, restaurateurs and landlords we must recognise that plant-based diets, beauty and textile choices are not a fad but part of a deeper cultural shift. It’s through early identification and responsiveness that industry can implement the changes consumers want to see, making good business and environmental sense.

Veganism may well become more popular and more prevalent, but it’s just one of a range of ways that consumers can reduce their environmental footprint. Mindful spending choices, switching to a more plant-based diet, buying local produce, seasonal produce and reducing food waste are all impactful and increasingly popular habits that reduce our individual impact on the planet. You might not be a vegan but that won’t stop you enjoying a ‘Sausage, Egz and Cheeze Muffin’ at Miami Burger, or selecting a vegetarian dish from any restaurant you happen to be in. Changing our diet alone can’t solve the climate change conundrum, but it would certainly help.

 

This piece was featured in Propel’s Friday Opinion, 8 February 2019.

 

[1] The Guardian – “Year of the vegan? Record numbers sign up for Veganuary” – 31 December 2018
[2] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/360/6392/987.full.pdf?ijkey=ffyeW1F0oSl6k&keytype=ref&siteid=sci
[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) AQUASTAT – “Water Uses” – 2016
[4] The Economist – “Meet and greens: how bad for the planet is eating meat?” – 31 December 2013
[5] The Grocer – “Three quarters of fruit and veg eaten in UK is imported” – 17 February 2017