Cheese consumers seek sustainability commitments from brands

September 9, 2016
7 min read

Cheese manufacturers have opportunities to increase the role sustainability plays in the creation of new products. Mintel’s 2016 Global Food & Drink Trend “Eco is the New Reality” notes that climate issues have created more urgency for manufacturers across food and drink to incorporate environmentally friendly ingredients, production techniques and packaging into the new product development process.

In the cheese category, a small portion of producers are leading innovation by promoting the use of environmentally friendly packaging, “green” energy and animal welfare in communication to consumers.

Environmentally friendly packaging has been leveraged by less than 5% of cheese new product releases in the last year

We’ve seen an increase in global cheese launches with ethical or environmentally friendly claims from June 2015-May 2016 compared to June 2011-May 2012. Despite the increase, few cheese introductions use ethical or environmentally friendly product claims. Indeed, while environmentally friendly packaging is the leading ethical claim made by cheese, it was leveraged by less than 5% of cheese product releases in the last year.

Not surprising, plastic was the leading primary package material used by cheese introductions with environmentally friendly package claims in the last year, with nearly three quarters of worldwide cheese launches that made eco-friendly package claims using plastic packaging. The material is often used with cheese and is associated with natural cheese, according to Mintel’s Cheese: Spotlight on Natural US 2015 report. In the US, near two in five cheese consumers would choose plastic wrap and just over a quarter would choose a pouch if they were creating their own ideal type of cheese.

For a more premium look, some cheese brands have added paperboard secondary packages that are recyclable, but also provide more space for text. In many cases, manufacturers are dedicating space on paperboard package wrap for product stories and claims, which are of more interest to consumers than ever before, as observed by Mintel’s 2016 Global Food & Drink Trend “Based on a True Story.” Cheese brands can use their packaging to share information about the origin, production and other details about their sustainability commitments. For example, Tesco takes advantage of this by using a stylish black paperboard outer pack, on which it explains about the production process of its private label Halloumi cheese.

Cheese consumers want more information about origin and animal welfare

Our research indicates that the fastest growing ethical claims between June 2011-May 2012 and June 2015-May 2016 were environmentally friendly product and animal-related claims. The use of environmentally friendly and animal claims also reflects Mintel’s “Based on a True Story” trend because consumers want to know more about what they are buying, especially when shopping for animal-derived products. The growth reflects increased consumer interest and new expectations for details about dairy, meat and other animal products.

One detail that is of interest to consumers is ingredient origin. Since April 2015, the European Union has required country of origin labeling for meat products. The required origin labeling for meat could lead consumers to expect similar information from other animal-derived products such as dairy.

A majority of Italian, Spanish, French, Polish and German consumers agree that cheese packaging should provide more information about the origin of the milk used to make cheese. In fact, European cheese consumers are more interested to know the origin of the milk used to make cheese than they are to learn about the milk that they buy to drink. For example, more than three quarters of Italian cheese-buyers are interested in knowing the origin of the milk used to make cheese, while half of Italians agree that milk packaging should have more information about where the milk came from.

In addition to origin, animal welfare claims have grown, but the claims still represent only 1% of global cheese launches from June 2015-May 2016. However, animal welfare claims are of interest to consumers in categories that are related to cheese. For example, one in five UK milk buyers are interested in dairy products that guarantee high animal welfare, according to Mintel’s Added Value in Dairy Drinks, Milk and Cream UK 2016 report.

Across the world, some cheese manufacturers are forthcoming with details about the treatment of animals that provide the milk used as a base for their products. For example, Calon Wen Organic Mellow Creamy Bite Size Cheese (UK) is made with milk from “cows grazing clover-rich pastures by a group of organic family farms across Wales.” Kindred Creamery Sharp Cheddar Cheese (US) says its dedicated to a “Cow’s First” program that “allows cows to have unfettered access to the outdoors.” These cheeses could serve as models for cheese-makers that might want adopt similar animal welfare programs and consumer communication.

Renewable energy is an opportunity for cost-savings and promotion

While the overall global launch totals are small, more and more cheese products are making environmentally friendly product claims, with some of these launches highlighting the company’s use of green power, such as renewable energy, in their production processes.

Consumers express interest in green energy as a sustainability issue, but it is relatively low on their list of ethical concerns. UK consumers, for example, take a company’s energy usage into account when considering if a company is ethical: one-third agree that a company is ethical if it guarantees to limit its carbon footprint. Despite the interest in energy consumption, animal welfare, ingredient origin and employee treatment are all ranked more highly than energy considerations in determining if a company is ethical.

UK cheese manufacturer Wyke Farms notes that it uses green energy, including biogas that is generated from farm and dairy waste. The company’s cheeses also are certified by the Red Tractor Assurance for Farms, a UK organization that ensures food safety, animal welfare, hygiene and environmental protection, according to the association. This certification is signified by a logo with a red tractor on the product. The use of such logos can help consumers quickly identify brands that are made with sustainability in mind.

Cheese manufacturers also can be more resourceful with how they use by-products from the cheese-making process. Such is the case with 650 dairy farmers in France’s Savoie region who identified a method that converts whey leftover from the cheese-making process into sugar water. The sugar water is sent to a plant that turns 99% of it into biogas, which is then used to power 1,500 homes in France. This type of inventive reuse can be promoted on cheese packaging and might encourage consumers to choose a specific brand because of its ethical commitments.

What we think

Cheese-makers have an opportunity to incorporate initiatives related to sustainability across their supply chain – and promote those activities to consumers. In addition to environmentally friendly plastic packaging, the addition of paperboard secondary packaging provides cheese brands with expanded space to share stories about their cheese, including commitments to sustainability. As we’ve seen animal welfare claims increase in global cheese launches, more companies could share their dedication to the positive treatment of the animals that provide milk for their products.

Jennifer Zegler is a Global Food & Drink Analyst at Mintel. She joined the Mintel Food & Drink Platform after her tenure as a dedicated Beverage Analyst on the US Mintel Reports team. She researched and wrote many of the category reports with a focus on both alcohol and non-alcohol segments and packaging. During her career, she has also written for several food and packaging magazines covering the US snack food, bakery, confectionery, meat, and packaging industries.

Jennifer Zegler
Jennifer Zegler

Jenny Zegler is the Director of Food and Drink at Mintel. Jenny blends her trends expertise with food and drink topics such as health, formulation, sustainability and premiumization.

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