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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Business, Law and Governance

Publish Date

27 September 2021

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Understanding the sustainable consumer

Vegetarianism as a dietary lifestyle is often heralded as more sustainable, ethical and beneficial than meat-inclusive diets. But is this true or is it a result of strategic marketing? JCU Senior Lecturer Breda McCarthy gives us insight into why vegetarianism has surged in culinary culture and the benefits this lifestyle has for our natural world.

Working in the Department of Economics and Marketing at JCU, Breda is using her marketing expertise to research sustainable consumer behaviour. She asks the question, ‘who are the sustainable consumers and what factors influence their choice to buy sustainably?’

Breda’s personal choices inform both her research and teaching. “I often draw inspiration from my everyday decisions as an ordinary consumer, such as installing roof-top solar or shopping at a local organic supermarket,” Breda says.

“I also draw from my failures as a sustainable consumer. My diet is not completely meat-free, which can prompt some interesting discussions in the workshops I run about the barriers to sustainable consumption and why we don’t always practice what we preach.”

Breda’s research also examines the role of marketing in sustainable consumer choices. “Marketing communications is highly persuasive, being both an art and a science,” Breda says. “It reflects the materialistic world; it is difficult for people to stop buying or to consume more responsibly because marketing can draw them right back into certain behaviours. Even the term ‘the sustainable consumer’ has negative connotations — how can we be consumers and live sustainably at the same time?”

Asking customers to consume more critically is a confronting prospect for marketers and for an industry that wants to meet consumer needs, increase customer satisfaction and make a profit. So, how does marketing successfully promote sustainability through vegetarianism?

Food influencers

Whatever their dietary lifestyle, every consumer’s food choices depend on a number factors, with the main ones being taste, price and quality. Perceptions of quality depend on intrinsic attributes of the product, such as colour, flavour, smell, appearance and freshness. Extrinsic factors such as the packaging, brand, production information, price and country of origin also influence consumer choices.

Food choices also depend on the values, upbringing and socio-demographic of a consumer. This is the sphere vegetarianism exists within.

“Some people recognise the social and environmental impact of their food choices and become vegetarians or vegans,” Breda says. “The food industry has had its share of bad publicity, such as animal cruelty and poor conditions in factory farms.”

For many consumers — and the brands that market to them — health and safety is a key driver of demand. “Take, for example, the demand for low-fat products, non-dairy, vegan, ‘clean’ food or organically grown food. When consumers purchase organic products that don’t depend on growth hormones, chemical pesticides or artificial fertilisers, they do so because of a belief that the production process makes the final product a safer and healthier choice.”

However, visual appeal is a factor that can act as a barrier to sustainable choices. “Food advertisers are adept at ‘sensory marketing’,” Breda says. “They use sensory triggers to influence consumers, such as the mouth-watering image of a plate of burgers and chips in advertising. In affluent societies, food consumers have become more selective about what they will buy — leaving the oddly shaped or blemished fruits and vegetables sitting on the supermarket shelf, contributing to food waste.”

The ethos of vegetarianism

While commercial marketing has a powerful influence over our choice of foods, the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS, founder of World Vegetarian Day) use a more personal approach to share the ethos of vegetarianism.

The NAVS encourages us to “help create a better world” through “influencing those closest to you”. Their 4-step plan to influence your family and friends includes: (a) letting them know that October is Vegetarian Awareness Month, (b) explaining why vegetarianism and its benefits are important to you personally, (c) encouraging them to explore recipes online, and (d) telling them they can add to the fun by asking others to join them in exploring this new way of eating.

“Word-of-mouth is very powerful because we trust family and friends much more than commercial sources of information,” Breda says. “The 4-step product challenge, similar to the notion to ‘go vegetarian for a week’, could help people to change their routines and develop new habits.”

More effective than the word of a friend, though, is the ethos of vegetarianism. The NAVS states that participating in vegetarianism will “help people, animals and the earth”.

“This is certainly true,” Breda says. “Medical research highlights the health problems associated with the excessive consumption of meat. Appealing to people’s egoistic values or self-interests is a good way to persuade us to reduce our meat consumption.”

In addition to health, there is the impact of meat production on climate change, environmental degradation and animal welfare. “People tend to forget the link between meat and animals.

People don’t really want to think about where meat comes from — the live animals from which the meat is extracted. Food advertising won’t show animals, although there might be pictures of Australian cows or Australian farmers to tap into the ‘buy local’ sentiment and the desire to support the farming community.

“A key strategy for vegetarian brands is to emphasise the human connection with animals in order to grow their customer base. A similarly effective strategy is tapping into the wellness trend and a renewed interest in fitness, nutrition, organic lifestyles, and mental and physical wellbeing.”

“Pro-environmental behaviour is linked to altruistic and biospheric values, which reflect a concern for animals, other people, the environment and an awareness of the costs or benefits of our choices to our ecosystems.”

JCU Senior Lecturer Breda McCarthy

Wellness, nutrition and the sustainable consumer

Marketing strategies and personal beliefs aside, the link between vegetarianism, health and sustainability is clear.

Breda says a reduction in meat consumption is personally and globally sustainable. A sustainable diet includes very little or no red meat, is high in ‘good carbs’ (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and soy products in their natural forms) and ‘good fats’ (omega-3 fatty acids), and low in ‘bad carbs’ (simple and refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and white flour).

A recent report from the EAT-Lancet Commission emphasises a plant-based diet, suggesting that our health benefits the most from structuring our diet and meals around nutrition density rather than meat quantity. “We need to dramatically reduce our meat and sugar intake and double our consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes,” Breda says.

Marketing, as Breda describes it, is about meeting the needs of both the consumer and the company, ensuring that their industry is viable and profitable. However, while marketing for vegetarian, vegan or plant-based diets is essentially about selling more to more people, the truth about our diet is that we simply don’t need to eat large quantities of meat.

“Embracing a sustainable diet doesn’t always mean sacrifice,” Breda says. “It could involve choosing higher quality, organic meat and buying from local farmers and markets. It could involve substituting meat with other forms of protein, even if only in some meals.”

Tapping into ‘wellness’ experiences — from fitness and nutrition to sleep and mindfulness — can assist brands. Vegetarian brands can leverage wellness within social media marketing. But the main goal for sustainable consumers should be to embrace being mindful of what and how they are consuming as well as consuming less.

“Avoiding food waste, choosing plastic-free items, buying local or organic food — all of these behaviours lie on the spectrum of sustainable consumption. Whether the behaviours are driven by an altruistic belief or personal ethos, they do contribute to a better world.”

JCU Senior Lecturer Breda McCarthy

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Breda McCarthy

Senior Lecturer

Breda McCarthy is a senior lecturer of Marketing in Economics and Marketing at JCU. Breda’s research interests lie in the intersection of consumer behaviour, sustainability, and marketing practice. She is curious about why consumers engage in sustainable and pro-environmental behaviours. Breda’s research is focused on critical issues that are aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Breda’s interest in social marketing adds dimension to these topics. She is currently working on a multi-disciplinary project on mobile health apps, exploring cognitive aging and older adults’ experiences with health apps. She also has a project focusing on online reviews and investigating how people evaluate electronic word-of-mouth and whether trust influences brand image. Breda has published conference papers, journal articles, and book chapters over a long career spanning 20 years in Ireland and Australia.