Climate Rescue on the Shopping List
30 August 2019, by Prof. Dr. Katharina Kleinen-von Königslöw, CEN Universität Hamburg
Photo: Unsplash - Maddi Bazzocco
Meat or vegetables? Packaged or loose? When it comes to food, our choices are endless. But how do we make our buying decisions and what role does sustainability play?
As part of the “Sustainable Lives: Food Choices as Politics and Lifestyle” research project, together with Imke Hoppe, my colleague at Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System research and Sustainability (CEN), I’m analyzing the debate surrounding sustainable diets on social media. To do so, for a month we evaluated posts and comments on the Facebook pages of the biggest supermarkets in Germany, Great Britain, the USA, Canada and South Africa.
The analysis shows what people find important when it comes to food and how significant the topic is in their social environment. We were especially interested in to what extent consumers make a connection between food and sustainability, and with it the responsible use of economic, ecological and social resources.
The first results show: The Germans and the British discuss the sustainability aspects of food the most intensively. In Germany, we looked at the Facebook discussions for the supermarket chain Edeka and the organic supermarket Alnatura. We found that while on Alnatura’s page, environmental experts enter into heated exchanges and provide numerous sources for their posts, discussions on Edeka’s page remain more general. But here, too, there are critical comments referring to the responsibilities of the supermarket and its customers – for example in the context of the environmental problems caused by the palm oil industry or plastic waste. Furthermore, the issue of social exclusion is mentioned: Is buying organic food a luxury only the wealthy can afford?
The topic of plastic waste also dominates the online discussions on the pages of the Tesco supermarket in Great Britain. Although the British consume far more packaged than unpackaged fresh food, many of them are aware of the problems this leads to and are demanding supermarkets get rid of plastic packaging.
In the USA and Canada, the debates on the Facebook pages of the supermarkets Loblaws and Kroger are much less political. In Canada, sustainability is a topic in just six percent of the comments. Customers in both countries talk more about personal experiences concerning buying decisions or health. The importance of food in traditional celebrations like Thanksgiving is also a common subject of discussion. Meat consumption is a central part of these traditions – and is only rarely called into question.
In South Africa, too, customers of the supermarket Shoprite talk little about sustainability, and it was only addressed in about five percent of the posts. Value for money is the most common topic. However, there are some people seeking alternatives. For instance on the Facebook pages of a South African organic weekly market there are discussions on alternative diets and regional solutions beyond the global food industry.
Although the intensity of discussions on sustainability varies in the countries studied, social networks provide an important and low-threshold platform to motivate people to adopt a more sustainable diet. Influencers and multipliers in this area know this, and they play a key role in drawing attention to environmental issues. On YouTube, Instagram and in numerous blogs they put these new ideals into practice and motivate others to live more environmentally friendly lives.
Katharina Kleinen-von Königslöw
Prof. Dr. Katharina Kleinen-von Königslöw is a researcher in the field of digital communications and sustainability.
Newspaper: This article was first published as a guest article in the Hamburger Abendblatt as part of a monthly series on climate research. Find all articles of the series here.