The brainchild of Washington DC-based NGO The World Resources Institute, the Better Buying Lab is on a mission to mainstream sustainable eating, not just in people's minds but in their shopping baskets too.
To do so it has brought together companies, academics and marketing experts to collectively develop ideas that go beyond information campaigns and then roll out these ideas in the company's own operations.
Partners already include Google, the Hilton group, mycoprotein manufacturer Quorn, British retailer Sainsbury’s and global food service firm Sodexo, which joined last week, bringing the number of partners to eight, with more to be announced.
WRI’s decision to harness private sector know-how is also a crucial element of the Better Buying Lab, according to its director, Daniel Vennard, who worked at Mars and Procter & Gamble for 15 years before joining the NGO.
He told FoodNavigator: “Businesses are smart in understanding how consumers shop and operate but in the NGO community the tools we use are not typically as sophisticated as in the private sector.
"There are lots of initiatives to inform consumers about the need to shift but we know just giving people information doesn’t drive change. We need more sophisticated and innovative strategies,” he said.
“[But] for change to be scaled quickly in business it has to be profitable. Initiatives should support businesses rather than dilute their profitability.”
First insights: Meat, moisturiser and masculinity
Some barriers to choosing plant-based proteins have already been identified – such as the idea that eating meat is inherently masculine while going
green is girly.
This is a challenging area as it taps into deeply-rooted cultural stereotypes and subconscious drivers but these kinds of obstacles have been overcome in parallel industries around the world.
“Look at the personal beauty sector,” says Vennard. ”The whole cosmetics industry has figured out in 15 years to turn a male taboo – moisturiser – to something in most men’s shopping baskets.”
One potential pitfall, that will be studies by the multi-stakeholder initiative, is the double-edged sword of healthy messaging. Research shows that while some consumers want healthy food, others see an on-pack healthy message correlating with ‘not very tasty or filling’.
Another success story being used as inspiration is the UK government’s challenge to the beverage industry in 2011.
It challenged industry to remove one billion units of alcohol from British people’s diets by 2015. Low-alcohol beers were seen as a solution but public perception of alcohol – that it is necessary for both taste and enjoyment – seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle.
One company, Molson Coors, launched Carling Zest which contained 2.8% alcohol compared with the average 4.8%, was flavoured with lemon, lime and ginger and marketed as refreshing. Sales jumped, other companies followed suite and, in conjunction with a slight decrease in beer alcohol content overall, the UK had surpassed the one billion unit target by 2013.
The Better Buying Lab will initially be rolled out in the UK and US with the aim of scaling it up globally over time, starting with developing markets where the WRI has offices, notably China, India and Brazil where meat consumption is increasing with “significant” environmental consequences says Vennard.
Is there concern over how this could be perceived; a Western NGO encouraging trying to limit meat consumption in developing countries, where it is associated with rising living standards?
“Concerns over that is why we started in the US and UK first, it makes sense to figure out [the situation] there first. But none of our approaches will be how to impose change,” he says.
“We’re not against meat, we’re for the consumer. Many consumers want to be more healthy and sustainable but the current offering and positioning doesn’t enable them to do that.”
These initial research findings will be released by the end of the year while results from the testing phase will be published in summer 2017.