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From Fake Meat to Dry January: The Rise of Conscientious Consumption

How value-driven consumers are pushing forward food and beverage innovations

“You are what you eat,” the old idiom goes, but in the modern age of endless choices and decision paralysis, it’s more like “you are what you choose to eat.” Never before has our daily consumption been more driven by what we believe in. As consumers, especially Gen Z and millennials, become increasingly aware of the impact our choices of food and drinks have on our environment and society, many are starting to make those choices more conscientiously out of both wellness and environmental concerns.

Following up on my article from last week exploring how meme culture and on-demand delivery have accelerated the spread of viral food trends, this week, we’re taking a look at how value-driven consumption is pushing the food and beverage industry to innovate and meet consumers’ rising ethical expectations.

Sustainability Concerns Driving Grocery and Food Choices

Environmental sustainability is an increasingly popular value shared by consumers across demographics and generations, and it is influencing consumer choices across product categories, especially in food and beverage. According to IFIC data recently collected from a survey of 1,005 Americans aged 18 to 80, 39% of all survey respondents said sustainability concerns influence their daily food and beverage purchases — an increase from the 27% that said so in 2019. Unsurprisingly, Gen Z is leading this shift in attitude. Per the survey, 73% of Gen Z respondents believe that they are more concerned about the environmental sustainability of their food choices than older generations, followed by 71% of millennials who believe the same.

For many consumers, this means ordering less takeout, using fewer plastic utensils, and shopping for more eco-friendly and sustainably-farmed grocery items. All these are leading to great changes in the food and beverage industry’s packaging innovations and sourcing of more environmentally responsible ingredients for their products.

Beyond metal straws and biodegradable paper bowls, which have been circling the market for a while now, one of the newest eco-friendly trends is edible containers and utensils made out of plant-based ingredients. For example, T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods are selling Incredible Eats spoons, made from a mix of wheat, oats, corn, chickpeas and brown rice that supposedly taste like a crouton or a cracker. Similarly, Lavazza coffee is now being served in edible cups from Cupffee, which boasts that its vegan coffee cups stay crunchy and crispy for up to 40 minutes — and are only 56 calories.

For consumers willing to take the next step, however, just using environmentally friendly packaging is not enough. Because the meat production industry is responsible for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gasses generated from food production, some people have taken it upon themselves to reduce their carbon footprint by renouncing meat and switching to a plant-based diet. As a result, the alternative meat and protein industry has been booming in recent years, and it shows no signs of slowing down; Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that the plant-based foods market to hit $162 billion in the next decade.

Source: Bloomberg Intelligence

Make no mistake, plant-based food is no longer a niche business. Alternative meat products are now widely available, thanks to lots of marketing and industry partnerships with big brands like McDonald’s and Starbucks. KFC recently made plant-based chicken from Beyond Meat available at its stores nationwide for people that crave that finger-licking goodness but don’t want to eat real chicken.

By now, most Americans have tried plant-based meat alternatives. According to a 2021 IFIC survey, about two-thirds (65%) of Americans reported eating “products that attempt to mimic the flavor and texture of animal protein but are made with only plant products” in the past year — with 20% consuming them at least weekly, and another 22% consuming them daily. Another 12% said they had not consumed plant-based meat alternatives over the past year but would like to try them in the future.

Beyond wishing to do their part as individuals to avoid worsening the global climate crisis, the people cutting back their meat consumption sometimes cite another value-driven concern for not eating meat: animal welfare. This issue has been particularly heightened in recent years as short videos and meme culture have surfaced the debate to many people’s algorithmic social feed. Overall, it seems that the type of “in-your-face” meat consumption is now often frowned upon, evidenced by a recent TikTok video of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, in which he appears to take great delight in picking a lamb to slaughter, going viral and receiving some backlash for his perceived animal cruelty.

Beyond plant-based meat alternatives, lab-grown meat products are also growing fast. According to a forecast compiled by Blue Horizon Corp, the lab-grown meat market is projected to reach $140 billion by 2030. California-based food-technology startup Memphis Meats has also taken strides in developing 3D-printed meat products that they hope to eventually produce at scale. At the moment, however, quite a few challenges, including the high production costs and high energy usage that 3D printing requires, still need to be addressed before lab-grown meat can emerge from the lab and be available on a larger scale.

The Rise of a New Temperance Movement

If you’ve been to a supermarket or a grocery store recently, you may have noticed the amount of non-alcoholic beverages or low-ABV options seemingly taking over the beer aisle. Following the rise of hard seltzers, arguably kickstarted by White Claws three summers ago, new alternatives to hard liquor have infiltrated the packaged beverage market, and they’re giving established beer and spirits brands a run for their money.

During the initial months of pandemic lockdowns, alcohol and wine consumption spiked nationwide. But now, as we start to return to normal, many people, especially younger people, are starting to re-examine their relationships with alcohol, and the social value that we culturally prescribe to its consumption. Studies have shown that millennials and Gen Z drink much less than older generations. A 2021 Gallup survey found that just 60% of Americans reported drinking any alcoholic beverages, down from 65% in 2019 and tied for the lowest level in two decades. Not only are fewer adults drinking, but those who do are consuming less. In the same Gallup survey, Americans who drink said they consumed 3.6 drinks per week, the lowest level in 20 years.

No wonder each year millions of Americans participate in Dry January, kicking off a new year with a month of sobriety. In 2022, nearly 1 in 5 consumers reported that they planned to participate in Dry January, according to a survey by Morning Consult. Millennials are driving participation, with 27% planning to abstain from alcohol for at least some of the month, up from 16% in 2021. This is corroborated by data from a 2022 YPulse research, which found Gen Z and Millennials are becoming more sober-curious, with 43% of Millennials saying they’re making a conscious effort to limit how much alcohol they’re drinking compared to 38% in 2020. In other words, the younger generations are leading a “New Temperance Movement,” and alcohol brands are starting to notice.

While some in the alcohol industry may consider this to be a fleeting reaction brought on by the pandemic, it is starting to look more and more like a lasting cultural shift. Instead of alcohol, people find alternative ways to deal with the everyday stress in their lives, whether it’s cannabis, therapy, exercise, meditation, non-alcoholic alternatives, or something else.

Part of the reason behind this trend may be attributed to the rise of other vice economies that fulfill similar escapist or social functions that alcohol and cigarettes once legally monopolized. In particular, the legalization of cannabis has gained a lot of momentum in recent years and offered people new choices to kick back and relax. The concept of being “Cali sober,” aka abstinence from alcohol but not weed, is gaining popularity among young people who are questioning the health risks of drinking.

In response, there has been an explosion of adult nonalcoholic beverages: A slate of new offerings is vying to tempt consumers with new flavors and functionalities, including from AB InBev, Stella Rosa, and Katy Perry. Corona recently launched Sunbrew 0.0%, said to be the first alcohol-free beer to contain 30% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D. Even the venerable Irish brewer Guinness introduced its first alcohol-free stout, called Guinness 0.0, in 2021, to mostly positive reviews.

The Backlash is Already Here

As much as consumers want to lead with their values and choose the food and drink products that align best with their demand for sustainability or self-care, facing rising inflation and a potential economic downturn, could the rising cost of living crisis kill conscientious food choices?

When the total supermarket budget is squeezed, and savings need to be found, it would be rational to ditch higher-priced items first. The prices of more sustainable products may be higher than their non-sustainable counterparts due to environmental concerns, fair-trade principles, fair labor practices, and other factors that their less ethical counterparts happily skirt to offer dubiously low prices.

Already, reports say retail sales of plant-based meat alternatives are decelerating. After two years of category sales growth, with 2020 buoyed by the COVID-19 pandemic, sales have seemingly slowed. On the other hand, CNN is predicting a comeback for canned cocktails this summer, led by the viral popularity of the Dirty Shirley. Hard seltzer sales are reportedly going soft this summer as low-price beers pick up.

And at the end of the day, food and drink trends, like any other cultural shifts, are always going to experience the swing of the pendulum between indulgence and reflection. In the digital age of polarization, progress and backlash seems to be happening in tandem, and these two trends are no exceptions.

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab