Buying the groceries in a warming world

By Virginia TressiderMarch 3rd, 2015

Most Australians believe climate change is happening, even if they don’t all believe it’s caused by human activity. But they’re sometimes at a loss to know what their consumer choices should be in adapting to a warming world. And an inevitable range of competing demands means many consumers will, either through choice or necessity, put other factors ahead of climate.

A research team at CSIRO, led by Dr Lilly Lim-Camacho, have looked at how people prioritise climate change adaptation, both as a social issue and as an influence on their consumption and purchasing of food products. They published the results of their nationwide survey in a new report, Climate adaptation: what it means for Australian consumers.

Circular graph showing groups as following proportions: eco-friendlies 30%, eco-warriors 14%, sceptics 8%, abdicators 16%, undecided 31%

A breakdown of Australian perceptions of climate change, by segment. (see Note 1)

“Our survey of over 1500 Australians from regional and metropolitan Australia, across a range of demographics, found consumers generally don’t have a very clear understanding of the concept of adapting to climate change, and it’s not a major factor in their purchasing decisions,” said Dr Lim-Camacho.

When asked to define climate adaptation, only 16 per cent of those who answered the survey defined it as making changes to reduce the impacts of climate change and coping with change.

This implies that approaches to adaptation will be more successful if made in the context of people’s established priorities – health, economic stability, managing the cost of living and maintaining their way of life.

Climate change will affect all of these to varying degrees. Because of this, consumers might place a greater value on adapted food products if they understand and appreciate how climate change intersects with their broader concerns. Not surprisingly, they are also more likely to adapt if there is an added benefit, such as reduced cost, rather than as a deliberate altruistic act to protect the environment and mitigate climate change risk.

Implications for food businesses

“For food businesses, this means that by understanding what their various market segments believe and value, they can move towards encouraging consumers to value adaptation”, said Dr Lim-Camacho.

Truck driving along a road with clouds above

Survey respondents feel the transportation and processing parties in the food chain are less vulnerable to climate change than farmers. Image: iStock

Not all adaptation initiatives, however, translate into customer value. At present, businesses are concentrating on internal business risks: rising input costs, the sustainability of growing regions and reliable supply. Consumers are more concerned with rising electricity prices, water supply and shortages.

Clearly, though, on this issue business and consumers are in it together. Not just in the sense of inhabiting the same planet, but in the more material sense: the factors worrying consumers also have an effect on production and supply costs.

Respondents see increased food prices as the greatest worry when considering climate change. They see fresh food supply as most vulnerable, along with other environmentally-dependent issues. They rate transport, major infrastructure and processed food industries as least vulnerable to a changing climate.

Attitudes on climate adaptation strategies for food products

A young girl eating an apple next to a bucket of apples

It may take more than the issue of climate change to get consumers to consider climate adaptation in their food consumption and purchasing. Image: istock

To delve into the issues a little deeper, people who answered the survey were asked how they would react when given two hypothetical options for climate adaptation – lower quality or higher price – across three food products. Would they rather producers:

  • reduced raw material quality standards resulting in ‘spotty’ potato chips, or made alternative supply arrangements to meet high quality standards?
  • lowered quality standards to supply smaller, quick-ripening mangoes or maintained high quality standards with fewer, more expensive mangoes available?
  • absorbed climate-induced change in wine grape quality, leading to less crisp flavour and discoloured wine, or sourced grapes from other regions to meet quality requirements?

The research team found consumers would rather substitute another product or buy less than accept inferior products, although substitution only goes so far. They were willing to substitute for chips and wine, but not mangoes. And they were more likely to support efforts to maintain high quality standards for wine than for mangoes or chips.

They were then asked how they felt about adaptation strategies like increased research and development (R&D) for potato chips and moving production to another location for mangoes and wine. The answer – pretty lukewarm. Only 13 per cent of chip consumers strongly support R&D-led adaptation. Nineteen per cent of both mango and wine consumers support shifting production so the company can continue providing the same quality product. Mango consumers were more likely to want to know about adaptation strategies and would pay more for ‘adapted’ fruit. Wine had the strongest responses for ‘letting nature take its course’.

“Our results suggest it takes something more than climate change to get consumers to buy adapted products. Where businesses take steps to protect farmers or protect industries ‘close to home’, consumers are more likely to support them – for some products, if it doesn’t cost too much,” said Dr Lim-Camacho.

“While our data indicate most Australian consumers believe climate change is happening, for now, sadly, the personal responsibility to make a difference seems limited.”


  1. Lim-Camacho, L. Ariyawardana, A. Lewis, G. and Crimp, S. (2014) Climate adaptation: What it means for Australian consumers. Consumer Survey – 2014 results. CSIRO, Australia.


  1. The present Govt. appears to be appeasing the fossil fuel producers at the expense of the Green Technologies. How are people supposed to make sense of this and why then should people make an effort to assist by purchasing, solar panels, hybrid vehicles and other green energy technology when the Govt. is doing the opposite. One only has to look at Germany to see how a committed government can make a difference by putting in effect policies that encourages green energy. Our government’s seems backward compared to some other governments worldwide. Still we all must keep trying regardless of what our Govt. is doing

  2. We have the ability to provide organic products through hydro and aqua phonics which lower cost without sacrificing quality or quantity. I would like to discuss how we might work together with CSIRO to bring this technology to Australia.

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