The role of supermarkets in eating sustainably

April 21, 2019



Environmental sustainability may in part be achievable through a shift in diets from animal-based protein to alternatives sources of proteins such as plants, insects, and lab-grown meat. This is because animal-based proteins have been linked with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and higher agricultural resource use.


Although consumer trends reveal that animal-based protein sources are still very common, there are a number of ways that consumers could be oriented towards alternatives. Gravely and Fraser (2018) examined the role that supermarkets play in mediating this shift.


Their study took place in Canada where the “Big Three” supermarket chains, Loblaws, Sobeys, and Metro, were reported to make up over 60% of the market share in 2013. Corporate-controlled supermarkets are in fact the norm in Western society. Within this context, supermarkets could have tremendous sway on what foods people are consuming.


Gravely and Fraser (2018) asked the question “how are Canadian supermarkets mediating a transition to greater plant-based protein consumption?”. Their approach to addressing this question was three-fold: supermarket audits, interviews with omnivore consumers, and interviews with key informants such as local supermarket managers. The researchers focused on plant-based products such as meat and dairy substitutes, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. The study was conducted in three Ontario cities in close proximity to one another, Guelph, Waterloo, and Kitchener.


Supermarket audits consisted of comparing animal-based and plant-based proteins in terms of shelf space allotments, which indicates product availability, the prevalence of product promotions, which signal the retailer’s desire to have consumers buy the product, and location of products, which relates to accessibility.


As part of the consumer interviews, participants were asked a series of questions to characterize how easy it was for them to find the protein sources they were seeking, how well these products were promoted in-store and how satisfying it was to shop for the products in terms of available varieties and quality.  On the other hand, interviews with key informants consisted of questions aimed at elucidating the supermarkets’ strategies in retailing protein and how they are responding to consumers’ changing demand for plant-based proteins.


The audits revealed that a significantly greater amount of shelf space is dedicated to animal-based proteins compared to plant-based proteins and that there are also more promotions for the former. Interviews with consumer participants corroborated these observations and participants added that plant-based proteins were generally more difficult to find in supermarkets.


Consumers indicated that a number of factors will encourage them to purchase a product such as:  trying the product at a sampling station, availability of recipe cards, ease of preparation and convenience, acceptance by others in their household, and promotional sales.  The location of products tended to cue consumers as to their quality where those along the perimeter are perceived as “wholesome” or “healthy” and those down the aisles are seen as more processed.  Descriptive and promotional signage may also cue consumers to the quality of products.


Interviews with key informants revealed that supermarkets recognize a rising demand for plant-based proteins and will tend to differentiate their product offerings once there are sufficient signals from consumers.  When asked about moving plant-based products to higher traffic areas, one former supermarket executive indicated that doing so may harm profits since this would mean displacing some “core” products that serve to draw consumers into the store.


Gravely and Fraser (2018) concluded that supermarkets are both enabling and limiting consumer access to alternative proteins and offer a number of suggestions that could encourage greater uptake of these products. Suggestions included placing more plant-based proteins in the high-traffic areas of the store and working with product manufacturers to develop alternative proteins that are convenient and easy to prepare.



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Gavely E and Fraser E. (2018) Transitions on the shopping floor: Investigating the role of Canadian supermarkets in alternative protein consumption. Appetite. 130:146-156.