Why brands need to put health and sustainability before profit

Henry Dimbleby
Leon Foods HERO

How can brands be encouraged to put health and sustainability before profit?

I was at an event recently where we discussed how to make systems more sustainable for the future and one of the teenagers in the audience said, “Companies like Leon are great but their food is too expensive”. Part of the reason for that – the perception she and others have – is due to a deep-seated structural problem.

In today’s world, we have a predilection to eat things that are sweet and fatty. The ever-increasing – and cheap – supply of these into our food system means we’ve got larger and, consequently, are getting sicker. It’s no surprise that a huge amount of food that businesses make is designed to appeal to these desires. And brands are devising foods that fit what we want instead of trying to create new desires. When it comes to consumerism, an aubergine is just an aubergine, but a chocolate biscuit can be fashioned in myriad ways. Maybe that aubergine could be designed to hold greater appeal but that means brands need to try harder to create new desires rather than just rely on what they’ve been doing for decades. Brands aren’t evil, they’re just doing what people want them to do.

And then there’s the farming side of things. We’ve become incredibly efficient in the way that we grow food and that’s made food far cheaper than ever. But that can be problematic if you’re a business trying to behave in a sustainable way. You’re trying to balance consumers’ tastes and farming practices. Ever since we started Leon, we’ve tried to make the food cheaper – it’s still our dream – but we’re also trying to show responsibility for what we offer as a brand.

So, you have to stay true to what you believe in. Give consumers the goods that they want and, at the same time, try to help them understand costs beyond the purely transactional one in a shop. We should make good, healthy food that’s affordable for everyone – but it’s tough.

Can government inspire stakeholders to be more collaborative in this sustainability drive?

For sure we need to be more collaborative – it’s one of the key aims of the National Food Strategy. In the UK, there are about 100 supply chains that deliver our food. Everyone involved in these companies either has children or knows people who have children, and they all understand that our current system isn’t fit for the future of the younger generation. By coming together, we can confront these issues with greater purpose. And yes, government can be a force that inspires that collaboration. That’s what we all hope.

How can brands inspire change in the face of such obstacles?

Brands can overcome these obstacles, and for society’s sake they must. There’s a recent film that the Food Foundation made called Eat Them to Defeat Them. It’s very clever and funny, encouraging kids to eat more vegetables in case these green things take over the world. The day after it was first shown, there was a spike in people buying vegetables – it had a tangible effect on their behaviour.

The marketing, advertising, branding and media industries have a vital role to play in creating a more sustainable food future

The marketing, advertising, branding and media industries have enormous influence and a vital role to play in creating a more sustainable food future through creativity. Imagine if just a fraction of the budget spent on advertising all the other stuff – the fatty, sweet stuff – was set aside for more positive messages about sustainability, to help our children to stay well. There’s a huge responsibility on the shoulders of brands – from the food companies to the distributors – to do the right thing for society. In every board meeting, I want someone to say, “OK, this is the easy way but maybe we should try and ask and answer the difficult questions. How can we be better, and use our collective brain power to change things?”

Is there a better way for legacy brands and disrupters to work together?

There are two kinds of brand leaders: those in front and those chasing. The ones in front are always trying to see what they can learn from the upcoming upstarts and the ones behind are always trying to push the purported leaders to change the way they do things and embrace new strategies and products.

We’ve faced it at Leon, and the team there will no doubt continue to do so. That shifting power is a great dynamic and we need to embrace that energy, with current and future leaders working together. That’s how it works in commercial systems. Brands like Leon create pressure and, at the same time, inspire pressure from others. In fact, what’s been copied from Leon in a sustainability sense has had a far greater impact than what we’ve done ourselves. That’s how it should be.

The big brands need to be pushing for change but too many of them still have their heads stuck in the sand

Brands need to be inspiring, encouraging and sometimes even chasing the disrupters. And the disrupters need to work with the larger brands to accelerate change in consumer buying habits. It’s about being collective and trying to show that another way is possible. But it’s the big brands – the global titans – that need to be pushing for change and I think that too many of them still have their heads stuck in the sand. It’s time they started showing some leadership.

Are new generations inspiring different sustainable behaviours?

Younger audiences are demanding of their parents and their brands in a way that we weren’t when I was growing up. They’re literally hungry for change and it’s inspiring to see and hear their strength of purpose. I’m excited about the power of youth to change culture but I’m also worried about delegating responsibility to them. Of course, we need to pass these ideas on to them about sustainability and encourage them to get the message out there. But we also need them to realise that they’re agents of their own change; they can make choices that aren’t the same as their parents’.

Young people are more independent than ever, and I have great hope that this independence will push sustainability issues farther up the agenda. But the messages must be positive – rather than preaching victimhood, we need to help today’s youth understand that they have the power to change things for the better.

What about the way food is grown? Do brands have a role to play there?

Brands need to engage with the energy and talent of our farmers. That collaboration could completely change the way food is grown, how farms operate, the way we care for animals – creating more sustainable ways of living, working and producing.

You can’t fake sustainability – you have to live it in everything you do. Otherwise consumers will catch you out and their loyalty will be tested

Farmers know that the rules they’re forced to work under are impractical; they want to work with big business to improve things. For instance, there are already really interesting farmers’ clusters appearing all around the countryside – movements and collaborations inspired by brands and big business that are trying to instil greater sustainability practices and habitats in their areas. People working together for a common good rather than simply for profit. Just a small amount of money and backing from brands is having an enormous impact in pockets of the country.

When it comes to the National Food Strategy, what does success look like?

We need to create a vision for the future that’s viewed enthusiastically by both business and citizens. We need to set milestones and targets and find a mechanism to constantly measure them. And we need to communicate what we’re doing in a novel and loud enough way so that we don’t just create action amongst people but also inspire other countries to change things. We have the power, but we need to harness it. Government, brands, farmers, producers, distributors and, of course, consumers – creating greater food sustainability means all need to work in unison. And I think that message is stronger than it ever has been.