Grocery brands shouldn’t wait for consumers to lead the way on sustainability


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Being mindful of consumer preferences and needs is essential for any business – after all, there’s no point in making products that aren’t in demand. But for food companies, the focus on preferences and habits runs even deeper. Therefore, showing that consumers care about (and pay for) sustainability practices has been a top priority for sustainability departments when arguing for their budgets and initiatives.

But it’s not an easy thing to prove. Consumers are people – and therefore complicated. What do you really know about sustainability? How does this affect their eating habits? And what should companies do with this information?

It’s hard to fathom, but consumers still don’t have a solid grip on sustainability. GreenBiz co-founder Joel Makower reviewed the sustainability surveys and other studies from this year’s Earth Day and found that most people cannot point to the highest-impact climate action they could take. They are unlikely to make changes in their lives that would result in significant carbon savings. This brings Makower to a sobering conclusion: “After all these decades and untold billions of dollars spent on marketing and communications, the public still doesn’t know how to embrace climate solutions.”

This general lack of knowledge also extends to food systems. Consumer beliefs about the sustainability and nutrition of food do not square with scientific evidence, according to recent data from Consumer Food Insights, a monthly survey of more than 1,200 Americans from around the world by the Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability (CFDAS). Country. at Purdue University.

A wealth of scientific evidence shows that farming is a major contributor to climate change, GM foods are safe to eat, and that local foods are, on average, no better for the environment. But these facts have not yet reached the public.

Trend surveys of the food industry indicate similar gaps. A 2021 Mondelez International survey of global consumers found that 85 percent of respondents “buy or plan to buy snacks from companies that are working to offset their environmental impact.” Respondents said that products with low waste and recyclable packaging are their top priority – which in turn is not a top priority for climate scientists.

In another survey, Cargill found a 6-point increase in U.S. consumers between 2019 and 2022 who said they were “more likely to buy packaged foods with sustainability claims,” ​​which is now 37 percent of respondents. When evaluating such products, respondents prefer “sustainably sourced” (63 percent) and “responsibly produced” (57 percent) to “fairly traded” (46 percent), although the former two tend to be vague marketing terms while fair trade claims are made tend to be verified by third parties. Some of these proclaimed intentions also translate into sales. The natural and organic products industry, for example, grew 7.7 percent in 2021 to $274 billion.

But overall, taste, nutritional value and affordability still trump consumer sustainability concerns. Purdue data shows that these three characteristics each account for about a quarter of consumer priorities, and there is little difference between urban and rural dwellers. Ecological and social responsibility only account for around 9 percent each in public decision-making.

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To me, this means a simple message for food brands: stop playing chicken and egg with consumers. Take responsibility for your social and environmental footprint in your operations and across the value chain, where the greatest impact lies. Today’s climate, biodiversity and social justice crises are too urgent for brands to wait until most consumers are ready.

Also, food companies can do a lot to influence what consumers want. Humans don’t live in a vacuum. Your opinions and desires are influenced by friends, family, teachers, news, advertisements and so on.

Instead of using marketing efforts to hype individual brands and products, companies could launch holistic campaigns that educate people rather than spreading confusing messages about nutrition and climate. And let’s also use lobbying dollars to accelerate the most effective climate solutions and communicate them clearly to the public. In this way, companies pave the way for sustainable purchasing instead of chasing fleeting consumer trends.

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]


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