Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Never Mind The Pollocks – Sustainable Fish Drive Reflects Behavioural Economics

There’s something new taking place at your local Sainsbury’s. The supermarket’s “Switch The Fish” campaign is offering shoppers free portions of lesser-known fish as Sainsbury’s contribution to the sustainability drive.

For one day only – this Friday - Sainsbury’s shoppers who ask for cod, haddock, tuna, salmon or prawns - the ‘big five’ – on fish counters, will be offered a portion of one of six lesser-known fish free of charge instead. These include coley, megrim, hake, mackerel, rainbow trout or pouting (which is something I thought only Amy Winehouse did).

But is there really substance behind this ambition or is ‘sustainability’ just the latest transient campaign following on from ‘organic’, ‘locally produced’ and ‘non-genetically modified’ to give shoppers the sense that their multiple of choice is leading the way in social responsibility?

The biggest challenge to the success of the sustainability campaign lies in the way we think compared to the way we act. As a nation, we’ve been eating cod for generations – it’s a British staple, and so shoppers have a very hard time believing that it’s actually now an endangered species. Moreover, the drive to change our fish eating habits rests largely with those who buy from the fresh fish counter, who are more likely than others to be prepared to experiment.

Television documentaries are increasingly being recognised as a successful medium for prompting social and behavioural change. High-profile examples have included Supersize Me, and Jamie's School Dinners, and it is true that in the aftermath of Channel 4's Fish Fight campaign earlier this year, all of the leading supermarkets reported significant increases in the sale of fresh fish.

I would imagine, however, that the % of sales from the freezer remains higher than at counter and the ability to cross these shoppers over to more sustainable breeds will be more challenging. My impression is that the freezer brands (Birds Eye) etc are talking much more about authenticity of the product (i.e. real cod in the fish fingers, Scottish salmon, not just salmon etc.) than sustainability. And, at the moment, of course, they speak to the mainstream shopper.

In this sense, this seems like a classic application of behavioural economics, the notion that people often don’t make rational or logical purchasing decisions. Is there a dissonance here between what people feel, think, say and then what they ultimately do?

I think there will be. How will consumers act when presented with a more relevant choice to push them towards sustainable behaviour, especially when it is a – more or less - cost neutral choice? On the face of it, you would expect them to opt for the sustainable choice but we are asking the public to eat fish they’re not familiar with and, at the point of making the purchase decision, how many will truly opt to take home megrim or hake to the family table instead of cod, haddock or plaice?

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