COP28 ends and the festive season begins – will it be a vegan Christmas?

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Christmas dinner table setting

By Robin Struber, PhD student, Business School

COP28 is coming to an end just at the festive season begins. With the climate emergency back in the spotlight, does this mean more of us are opting for a vegan Christmas? It doesn’t look that way.

While national institutions are discussing ways to gradually ‘phase out’ emissions, the lack of progress across markets since the Paris Agreement demands a radical departure from emission heavy practices, especially in critical sectors such as ’foods and drinks’. Global food-system emissions roughly equate to 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet there is very little evidence to suggest stakeholder behaviour is changing to mitigate this hefty carbon footprint. A key question this Christmas is, therefore, how can ingrained activities, both individual and organisational, be reconciled with environmental needs?

When it comes to food and drink, tastes remain particularly conservative; this year 14% of Britons suggest they will be including meat-free options for the Christmas meal and only 6% plan to be fully vegan. Firms have sought to adapt to this reality by introducing plant-based ranges that can replace carbon intensive meat with resource efficient protein sources such as soy, pea or mycoprotein, allowing customers to reduce their environmental footprint without affecting behavioural change. However, economic challenges in the last two years have seen shelf space dwindle and product variety decrease. In some ways the market’s slowing growth is symptomatic of the complexity of the climate challenge: while COP28 dominates headlines few Britons are willing to forego the Christmas turkey without a strong policy or market incentive.

Key struggles therefore remain in reconciling sustainability with competitiveness:

  1. Lack of scale and operating costs mean products demand a price premium

Research demonstrates plant-based alternatives still cost a staggering 180% of the price of regular meat per pound of product. Particularly Christmas classics such as turkey (355%) or chicken (324%) can cost more than triple their meat counterparts. Against the backdrop of lower consumer spending, conventional competitors and supermarkets diversifying into plant-based, such as M&S’s Plant Kitchen, can subsidise these products, meanwhile newer ventures must reexamine their processes or cut costly products from their offering. Until then, high operating and ingredient costs will continue to necessitate a price premium that customers are unwilling to match.

  1. Mimicking the taste and texture of complex proteins such as red meat  

The reduction of shelf space for plant-based products that has occurred over the last two years has forced many innovators to focus on quality over quantity. This may have been a painful but necessary realignment for the market as research into Europe’s plant-based food sector suggests taste and texture is still the key decider in winning over the most significant demographic: flexitarians. This means fewer ventures are willing to gamble on niche products such as pigs in blankets or turkey. For innovators, perfecting existing processes, which are key in allowing protein sources such as soy or mycoprotein to mimic the ‘stringy’ qualities of animal protein, is now a strategic priority.

  1. Consumer distrust towards unknown products and long ingredient lists   

A preference by consumers to stick to tried and tested recipes, especially during festive periods with a strong emotive connection, means food and drink remains an incremental innovation sector. On the one hand, this permitted early innovators such as Quorn and Linda McCartney to carve out a niche between wholefoods and meat, both in terms of carbon footprint and taste. On the other, it has fallen short of early estimates that plant-based products would replace meat as mainstream consumers remain sceptic about technologically advanced processes and complex ingredients.

These obstacles mean low carbon alternatives still have too little space on the Christmas plate this year to provide a silver bullet for ‘greening’ the sector through innovation. Stakeholder groups willing to incorporate sustainability into their decision making are not prepared to sacrifice quality or price. This provides an important lesson for firms facing the task of remaining economically competitive while implementing low carbon business models. Consumer enthusiasm cannot be taken for granted as attitude and purchasing behaviour towards sustainable products still reveal disparities. Likewise, the sector can no longer afford to wait for COP28 to force a transition to carbon neutrality. A key challenge for responsible businesses this season will be proactively raising consumer awareness of the environmental impact of their choices and becoming more price competitive as household incomes are squeezed. Overcome these challenges and it may prove to be a roadmap for sustainable innovations.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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