The Green Grocer: How UK retailers are evolving to meet consumers’ ethical dietary and product demands


By Nathalie Kinsbursky


Vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, flexitarian, vegan… be it for health or ethical reasons, the British public is unequivocally becoming more conscientious when it comes to the food they consume. As such, suppliers are reacting to consumer demand, and retailers are reacting to a growing demand for healthy alternatives by developing strategies that allocate more shelf space to SKUs catering to these specialty diets and lifestyles. In turn, the floor plan of your local supermarket is changing.

Take veganism for example. With the UK’s vegan market expected to grow 25% in the next 4 years, this unprecedented growth is presenting a fresh market opportunity for brands and grocers across the UK [data from Live Kindly]. In fact, Mintel reported 20% of people under 35 in the UK have tried a vegan diet. A recent Compare the Market survey surmised that 7%, or 3.35 million people, in the UK claim to be vegan; delivery giant Just Eat has called going vegan “the biggest food trend of the year”, citing a 987% increase in demand for plant-based options in 2017. Businesses across the food industry are having to react quickly in order to stay ahead of the game.

There’s been a real cultural shift from the noughties shock tactics of PETA in creating meat-free converts, and the tired trope of the preachy vegan is losing traction as brands such as Oatly, Mr Organic and Sweet Freedom focus on innovative plant-based alternatives catering to any type of healthy eater and ethical buyer. This cultural zeitgeist is reflected in the causal dining landscape too, with the likes of Wetherspoon’s and Prezzo now offering vegan options.  People are experimenting with the vegan lifestyle for a variety of reasons – health, animal cruelty, the environment, food sustainability, and more. Let’s face it: veganism is currently quite trendy - just ask Ellie Goulding, Miley Cyrus or JME.

As food suppliers invest in new product development, retailers are also recognising this shift, adjusting their offerings and providing greater shelf space, to secure footfall from potential consumers living a partial or predominantly vegan lifestyle.


Range Development

Tesco is a brilliant example of a major retailer acknowledging the power of plant-based products. The grocer noticed a 25% increase in the demand for chilled vegetarian ready meals and meat substitutes; accordingly, they partnered with chef Derek Sarno to create an exclusive vegan-friendly product line, Wicked Kitchen. The range launched with a bang in January, hitting 600 stores nationwide. This collaboration has brought both brands great PR, stacking up B2B and B2C column inches, and helped secure Tesco a reputation as a vegan destination. They’ve incorporated Chef Derek into their successful Food Love Stories campaign, personalising what could otherwise be relegated to a corporate venture, and allocated online space to their vegan/vegetarian offering too. This marketing push has paid off - with a price tag of £3.00-£4.00, the Wicked Kitchen range tackles an established vegan pain point, supplying cost effective weekly basket-fillers. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to millennials – the fastest growing demographic converting to veganism – and provides a well-marketed shopping solution beyond specialist stores.

The mass development of new vegan products and the increased shelf-space in store is not only good news for specialty dieters and ethically conscious buyers, but it also creates a lot of social buzz surrounding retailers and supermarkets, themselves. So, while supermarket buyers focus on securing new vegan SKUs, head office would be short sighted to not consider the reasons people are turning to veganism in the first place – with Imaner’s Vegan Profile stating that 87% of vegans are converting for ethical reasons (including animal cruelty, the environment and sustainability).


Packaging Changes

Beyond veganism, consumers across the spectrum are becoming more environmentally conscious and choosing to vote with their wallet. Public opinion helped gather the momentum to instigate the ‘straw ban’, with many restaurants and chains across the UK now pledging to ditch single-use plastic straws. Consider also that England's seven main retailers sold 83% fewer single-use plastic bags in 2016 compared with 2014 [data from WRAP]: a resolute success, this plastic bag tax was largely met with public support. The Guardian wrote an article claiming the grocery retail sector accounts for more than 40% of all plastic packaging, and suppliers are scrambling to reduce packaging and keep up with the competition of providing ethical and sustainable goods.

With a large competitive spectrum of natural, sustainable and organic products, we predict a lot of creativity to come when it comes to product creation and packaging; we hope to see new ethical products like never before. In the meantime, grocers can leverage this cultural zeitgeist by offering limited time curated ‘plastic free zones’ in selected stores, green pop-ups and more.  As public opinion sways into ethical production across all spectrums, supermarket floor plans will continue to accommodate changing consumer needs. We predict a slow-burn shift toward long-term ‘ethical’ aisles – whether that’s plastic free, vegan, cruelty free, or a combination.

In the meantime, if you’re a brand or retailer looking to jump into the vegan revolution, or need support leveraging the consumer’s ethical mindset, The Brave Few are here to help.

Email to start the conversation.

Claire Scott