Elaine Higginson, managing director, First Choice Coffee
Without a doubt, ethical consumerism is one of the most prominent trends affecting the food and drink sector, along with healthy eating, convenience and local provenance. In a recent Allegra report, it was found that more than 50% of senior executives in the food and beverage sector believe that ethical branding influences consumers' purchasing decisions.
As consumers become increasingly enviro-conscious, they're looking for brands that support their lifestyle. "Reduce, reuse and recycle" resonates through every business and household, a maxim that has been further fuelled by the credit crunch. People are taking a step back and looking at how they can cut costs - a "make do and mend" mentality, which saves cash as well as looking after the environment, whether it's recycling cans or throwing coffee grounds on the garden.
With this in mind, consumers are looking for brands that support this new environment-friendly attitude to life. While people might be growing their own veg and supporting local producers, there are some products - such as coffee - that can't be locally sourced. We're now a converted nation of coffee drinkers, which won't change, so how can we give something back? We have to protect the communities and the environment that the coffee comes from. These days you're unlikely to buy a cup of coffee that doesn't have some form of ethical certification, whether it's Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance or organic. In fact, we've just introduced a triple-certified range, which means that the farm the coffee comes from has been accredited for all three.
But do consumers know what they're buying? Younger consumers, in particular, are quite savvy when it comes to ethical branding, but for others there are misconceptions. Just because a product has come from a sustainable source it doesn't mean it is Fairtrade or if something is organic, it doesn't mean it's healthy. As caterers, we have a responsibility to inform our customers about what they are eating and drinking. Just as we would give a detailed description of a dish on a menu, or display the nutritional content, we have to show how and where a product is sourced from it comes back to provenance.
So how do operators create an ethical brand that their customers can relate to? It's about creating a whole experience. It's not enough to simply slap a certification badge on a coffee cup. You need to communicate to the customer how it has been sourced, how it "gives something back".
But taste is still the most crucial element: if a product doesn't taste good, customers won't buy a brand regardless of whether it is ethical or not.