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Supplement sustainability: Survey reveals differences, challenges

While more than half of respondents say sustainability is important to their company, costs and a lack of government support keep them from doing more. See the survey data.

Kirstin Knight

September 7, 2023

5 Min Read
Green dietary supplement tablets made of spirulina is one example of a sustainable product.
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More than half of respondents to a global survey assessing how the supplement industry regards and approaches environmental sustainability said the issue is of high relevance to their company, but many said the costs associated with sustainable change, coupled with a lack of government support, were holding them back from doing more.

The results provide a glimpse not just of how much progress is being made but also how much progress could be made.

Simon Pettman, executive director at the International Alliance of Dietary/Food Supplements Associations (IADSA), which conducted the survey, said it was intended to establish a "global benchmark," telling Vitafood Insights, "This is about the global picture. This is about us all making sure that, as a sector, we are properly engaged in sustainability and doing what we can, within the resources available, to keep making progress."

Sustainable relevance

The survey, which was conducted by IPSOS on behalf of IADSA, targeted companies and member associations in more than 25 countries around the world; 335 took part.

More than half (56%) of respondents said environmental sustainability was already of high relevance to their company; 17% said the issue would become more relevant over the next one or two years, and 18% said it would become relevant in the medium to longer term. However, responses uncovered differences between the approaches of multinational corporations (MNCs) and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Related:Terraseed: Leading a sustainability revolution in supplements

MNCs were more likely than SMEs to identify investor expectations and pressure from employees as important driving factors for sustainability: 74% of MNCs said investor expectations were "very" or "fairly important," compared with 49% of SMEs, while 73% said the same of pressure from employees, versus 59% of SMEs.

MNCs were also more likely to identify compliance with regulations and legislation (67% versus 49%) and supply chain preparedness (42% versus 27%) as "very important" factors.

"We know that many of the larger companies have been addressing sustainability for years—some for decades," said Pettman. "But we also know that, for many SMEs, it's a new issue."

Cost concerns

Asked what, if anything, was holding their company back from focusing or doing more on environmental sustainability, almost half of respondents mentioned the cost to the consumer (48%), while a similar proportion cited the cost to the company itself (44%). Around one-third mentioned a lack of government support or incentives (34%). More MNCs than SMEs pointed to the cost of sustainability actions to the end consumer as a factor holding their business back—55% compared with 37%.

Related:The Natural List podcast – Supplement Futurecasting with Ritual and Radicle Science

This echoed the findings of a Vitafoods Insights survey conducted earlier this year, which found that 84% of European nutraceutical industry players favor governments establishing a minimum legal standard for corporate sustainability and due diligence, with 76% saying companies should be penalized for noncompliance. 

But while there was broad agreement that sustainable values should be core to business operations, the question of who should shoulder the cost was somewhat more complex. More than half (58%) of the Vitafoods Insights survey respondents agreed that nutraceutical companies should do business in a more environmentally sustainable way and that they should be prepared to accept a reduction in profits to achieve this.

However, most participants also said they wanted to see consumers shoulder responsibility for increased costs. Almost four in 10 (39%) strongly agreed that consumers should buy food supplements and nutraceuticals produced in an environmentally sustainable way and be prepared to spend more money on such products, with more than a quarter (27%) somewhat agreeing with this statement, the Vitafoods Insights survey revealed. Just 9% strongly disagreed, while 12% somewhat disagreed.

Nutrition omission

The IADSA survey reflected a range of goals in businesses' sustainability objectives, with strong support for many of those goals. The most widespread practices cited were employing responsible marketing and labelling (86%); ensuring food supplements contribute to healthy and sustainable diets (86%); preventing negative impacts of the production chain on the environment (84%); minimizing food and packaging waste (84%); and working toward responsible sourcing in the supply chain (81%).

However, Pettman highlighted that sustainability was about people as well as the planet, pointing to the nutrition targets within the UN's sustainable development goals (SDGs).

"[Fewer and fewer] people can afford to have a healthy diet," he said. "What can be done about that? Do we have a role as a supplement sector? How can we work with government to … achieve these targets that have been set to 2030? That's a whole other piece of it."

Indeed, a report from the Chatham House think tank titled "The Business Case for Investment in Nutrition" described adequate nutrition as "the missing link for sustainable growth."

"Tackling malnutrition would bring benefits for many aspects of the sustainable development agenda, from poverty reduction to gender equality," it read, adding: "For enlightened investors and companies, the potential for improved nutrition—both in the workforce and in the communities in which firms are embedded—to drive inclusive and sustainable growth should be a compelling impetus for investment."

Pettman said he hoped that the IADSA survey would build awareness at all levels.

"We are raising awareness. We're helping, in a way, the United Nations and other bodies to do that," he added. "We give them a chance—and we give our associations a chance—to get this on the agenda."

See the full survey at www.iadsa.org/sustainability-report

This article first appeared in Nutrition Business Journal's Global Market Overview Issue. Subscribe today to the Nutrition Business Journal.

About the Author(s)

Kirstin Knight

Food Editor, Vitafoods Insights

Kirstin Knight, who is based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, has been the food editor for Vitafoods Insights, an Informa Markets company, since June 2022. Her previous experience includes various editing positions at The I Paper in London, United Kingdom; the University Paper, in London; and Metro UK in London.

Knight has a bachelor's degree in English literature from Cardiff University in Cardiff, Wales, and a master's degree in linguistics from University College London.

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