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Econ 050: Going green at the grocery store

Date:24 January 2019
Econ 050 is a podcast made in collaboration between the Faculty of Economics and Business and The Northern Times.
Econ 050 is a podcast made in collaboration between the Faculty of Economics and Business and The Northern Times.

The new “green” grocer: Why is it so hard to get people to make greener purchases? Associate marketing professor Jenny van Doorn explains in this new episode of podcast Econ 050 that vice and virtue play a role, but at the end of the day, many shoppers are worried about sacrificing product effectiveness for environmental friendliness.

Given the daily reports about how the effects of climate change are already happening across the planet, it might seem like getting people to buy greener or more sustainable versions of products would be a cinch. But the bottom line for most consumers is still making sure that the product they buy actually works. It’s easier to persuade people to make more virtuous purchases when it comes to healthy foods, but the traditional, non-green versions of more indulgent buys like sports cars and chocolate bars are still more popular. And even if you do buy a vegetarian sausage instead of actual meat, does all that packaging around it cancel out any environmental benefits?

Find out in the full episode, available to hear online now here.

On what “greening” means:

Jenny van Doorn: Greening basically says you're trying to make a more environmentally friendly choice. You can do that for instance by buying certified product for instance organic products or Fairtrade products. You can also try to make more environmental choices by for instance trying to buy something with less plastic packaging or trying to waste less.

On whether green labels are trustworthy:

Traci White: How good of an indication is it for a consumer if they see a label of some kind on a product with green certified? Is that a pretty good rule of thumb, usually?

Van Doorn: It is a good rule of thumb, but it's not the only truth. And honestly, you can debate with experts for hours on this. For instance, what's more sustainable: an organic pumpkin from Argentina, or a non-organic pumpkin from the region? And then it starts depending on a lot of stuff. Mode of transport: is it by boat or is it by airplane? As soon as airplanes are involved, you're in trouble. So that's what I learned, and there is a lot of stuff going there, so it is an indication but it's not like everything.

On the role of product pricing when making green grocery choices:

Van Doorn: It’s about the money but it's not only about the money. For certain product categories, people just have the feeling that sustainable products are less tasty, less good, lesser quality. So in research we call this a sustainability liability.

On why there is so much plastic packaging in Dutch grocery stores:

White: In the Netherlands, there's a lot more fresh produce, but a lot of it is wrapped in a whole lot of plastic. So even if you're buying more environmentally friendly products, is packaging really a bigger deal than maybe what's inside the package?

Van Doorn: The reason [for the plastic] is that you want the product to stay good, and wrapping is always better than trashing. That's why you always find a lot of plastic around organic products, for instance. The turnover is slower, so then it's even more important to keep them wrapped so you keep the product in good quality.

On how the Dutch market stacks up when it comes to sustainable products:

Van Doorn: Well, if you look for instance at the percentage of ground that is used for organic farming, the Dutch market is really lagging behind. So I think in the Netherlands, it’s only around four per cent of the farming ground. And [countries] around us, like France, have 15 percent, and Germany has 20 percent. Also in the supermarkets, compared to other European countries, the Dutch market is not really up front.

On how much consumers can do to contribute to sustainability:

Van Doorn: I always think that all bits help somehow. If you are able to buy organic, just do it. If you are able to reduce food waste in your household, these are all things that kind of help. You will never have the perfect solution, but small bits may also help. I think everyone also has to decide for him or herself where he or she can make a contribution.