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Environment & ethics   |   Climate change

Why don’t students buy sustainable food?

University students are pretty green. Most of us don’t drive much, we represent a high proportion of vegetarian and vegans, and we’re more likely than many other population groups to participate in green activism, protest and voting. We’re doing our bit - however this does not always translate to buying choices.

I’m a second year geography student, and in my third year research project I would like to investigate what percentage of students are consistently buying based on environmental factors, such as organic and local, when it comes to their fruit and veg. Following this, I really want to understand why, by starting conversations about purchasing habits, and asking what could persuade students to make greener choices, particularly choosing organic food.  

Yes, organic food is more expensive. Meanwhile, the price of regular, non-organic food is artificially low because it doesn’t factor in the real social costs. There is, therefore, growing concern that food is becoming a very socioeconomic issue. But is this the oversimplified answer? While, yes, students are generally pretty tight on funds, is the cost of our food the sole reason for our buying choices? In general, here in the UK, we spend a far lower proportion of our incomes on food compared to other European countries.

This begs the question of prioritisation. Students, for example, often have busy social lives, as well as plenty of other hobbies - all of which require money. For me personally, I can be strangely happy to spend £20 at the pub or a tenner on a takeaway, but often have to think twice about spending 30p more on organic tomatoes. For others, I’m sure convenience is half the hassle, such as having to read labels, or perhaps popping to another shop for your fruit and veg. We’re all human and we’re busy, and we’re also not working a routine 9 to 5. Students also differ in that we’re buying solely for ourselves (so often quite frugally), whereas many buy organic thinking of the quality of their food for their partner or family.

We are a largely untapped demographic by the organic sector, and understanding student reasoning is key to changing that. This can be used to inform strategies, such as greater education and incentivisation. Does there need to be greater involvement of universities, or instead direct engagement of organic sellers with student bodies? Crucially, these solutions and propositions must originate from students themselves. While the government is failing to subsidise and invest in organic food, or tax environmentally damaging production, the burden falls to consumers. Targeting groups, such as students and those on low incomes, requires stronger strategies to meet them half-way in incentivising change.

This serves as an opportunity to access a large market of people in the UK, and importantly a young group for whom this could influence their consumption choices for life - and proliferate through future generations.  

Illustration by Tom Jay, tomjay.com. 

This column was originally published in the Wicked Leeks summer 2021 issue. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu here.

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    Anna Zuurmond

    Anna Zuurmond is a geography student at the University of Sheffield, who in a new column series for Wicked Leeks will be exploring student perceptions of sustainable food. She is passionate about the environment and the outdoors, spending a lot of time in the Peak District and Dartmoor, since moving to Devon.

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