Getting Greener

Sustainability in the Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Sections

Going green is a major priority for consumers, and they want brands that align with their values – environmental responsibility being one of them. Close to 6 in 10 consumers surveyed in a National Retail Federation (NRF)/IBM study said they are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. Nearly 8 in 10 respondents indicate sustainability is important to them1.

This shopper group, called purpose-based consumers1, accounts for 44% of food consumers. These individuals are willing to pay more for brands that have an active environmental stance. Over 70% of the most motivated respondents said they would pay a premium of 35%, on average, for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible1. It’s a significant consideration for all age groups, from Generation Z to boomers1.  

The evolving prominence of this mindset has a significant impact on the supermarket – specifically the frozen and refrigerated food sections. 


Transparency initiatives are more important than ever to consumers. 71% state that transparency and traceability are important, and they are willing to pay a premium for brands that provide them1.

NielsenIQ takes it a step further, claiming that transparency drove the growth of food in fast-moving consumer goods in 20182.

It’s no wonder that ethical practices, ingredients, claims, traceability, and communications efforts are rising throughout frozen and refrigerated aisles and will continue to grow as consumers demand more transparency. 


Overall, freezer cases have been doing very well with sustainable initiatives. Frozen foods already have a lower carbon footprint than fresh foods3. Here are three main areas that have helped to lower frozen food’s carbon footprint in recent years:


Overall, transporting frozen foods uses less fuel than traditional shipping methods for fresh products3

Before COVID-19, the focus was on manufacturers to evaluate their emissions with facilities and transportation. But, with the new push for online ordering and grocery delivery, retailers are now examining their processes, too.  Retailers are revamping their delivery and supply chain transportation by modernizing their fleets to options that use less fuel and opt for eco-friendly fuels4.

Less Waste

Frozen foods are a great alternative to fresh produce due to their extended shelf-life and use-what-you-need convenience. They can reduce food waste up to six times, which sounds even better once you know that one-third of our food worldwide ends up in the trash, with 45% being fresh fruits and vegetables5

End users aren’t the only ones that contribute to food waste, though. Consumers are starting to look to manufacturers and retailers to also play their part in reducing food waste. Retailers are contributing to these efforts by preventing food waste through strategic product ordering and responsible food handling on the operational level6. Additionally, manufacturers and retailers alike do a great job in rescuing surplus products for donation to the food insecure.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 50% of consumers started buying more frozen foods. This new high demand is fueling a closer look at more sustainable packaging throughout the frozen food category.  Manufacturers and retailers are listening. Many brands have recently swapped out older packaging for recyclable, reusable, compostable, and biodegradable options7


Environmental consciousness during the pandemic is affecting the refrigerated aisles. Sustainability as a primary reason to purchase products has increased significantly, with dairy consumers focused on carbon emissions and packaging8.

Several efforts are underway to address the sustainability of the category, focusing on innovation in a few key areas:

Storage – Energy Efficiency & Carbon Emissions

The refrigerated supply chain, or cold chain, reduces food losses significantly, but it’s an energy-intensive process. Many companies have made aggressive commitments to carbon neutrality and reduced emissions. Through innovation, the industry is tackling carbon emissions with efficiency projects, renewable energy sourcing and retrofitted refrigeration systems that emit less CO26.


A staggering 86% of U.S consumers agree that if they knew the use of renewable packaging contributed to reducing carbon emissions, it would impact their choice of packaging. On top of this, 69% would be willing to seek out products that come in renewable packages9

Sustainable packaging is a huge opportunity, and we’re starting to see changes such as glass bottles, plant-based plastic containers, and paper/reduced-plastic hybrids make their way into the aisle10

As recycling programs improve and expand, sustainable packaging will become more common in the refrigerated foods section.

Production Emissions & Carbon Footprint

Making strides in the dairy industry

From farm to consumer, the dairy industry is mobilizing to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency. For example, the Net Zero Initiative by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy is an industry-wide effort aimed to help U.S. dairy farms of all sizes and geographies implement new technologies and adopt economically viable practices11

“Producing a glass of milk today requires 30 percent less water, 21 percent less land, and has a 19 percent smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007, thanks to the positive actions taken by dairy farmers,” says Karen Scanlon, executive vice president of environmental stewardship at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.11 In some parts of the country, dairy generates 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than 50 years ago12

The plant-based alternative dairy industry is a trendsetter in eco-friendliness

Milk alternatives, such as soy, almond, oat, and coconut, continue to rise in popularity. In part because of vegan and plant-based lifestyle choices and because non-dairy alternatives have a low impact on the planet.  According to a University of Oxford study, alternative milk products emit relatively low greenhouse gases and use less land and water in production.13

Reducing environmental impact will be crucial to gaining and retaining new consumers; efforts need to continue to decrease or offset emissions during production and take part in earth-friendly initiatives. 


Sustainability is a popular topic in the frozen and refrigerated foods categories. It’s being driven by increased consumer interest and purchase intent of sustainably focused brands—transparency, packaging, carbon emissions, and waste impact the aisles. Efforts to improve are in motion, and those leading the way and communicating their actions are likely to gain the trust and dollars of loyal and new consumers. 


1 National Retail Federation/IBM Report – Meet the 2020 Consumers Driving Change

2 NielsonIQ – It’s clear transparency is driving FMCG growth

How green is it to eat frozen food?

4 Ahold Delhaize – Climate Impact

5 Fresh versus frozen: a sustainable choice with a twist

6  Supermarket chains embrace eco-friendly initiatives

7 Frozen food packaging gets more sustainable

8  McKinsey & Company – What’s ahead for the dairy industry

Survey: Most U.S. consumers would choose renewable packaging to help mitigate climate change

10  Sustainable packaging options for dairy foods continues to improve

11  Science-based roadmap can help dairy industry meet sustainability goals

12  California dairy farms have halved their emissions since 1964

13 Climate change: which vegan milk is best?