Consumers and Sustainability: Food and Beverage

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Consumers and Sustainability: Food and Beverage

Sustainability means different things to different people. Asked to identify what the term means to them, consumers most frequently respond “the ability to last over time” (76 percent) and “the ability to support oneself.” Sustainability is also strongly associated with environmental concerns, whereby consumers are being challenged to develop and express an “eco-consciousness” in their daily habits and purchases. Thus, nearly half of consumers associate sustainability with conserving natural resources and with recycling.

But using “eco-conscious” or “green” as synonymous with sustainability unduly limits the term. “Green” falls short as a description for the variety of social, economic and environmental issues that real-world individuals believe are important to sustaining themselves, their communities and society at large.

All of these issues are salient to the food and beverage category, which is central to consumer perceptions of sustainability. When the consumption of sustainable foods is motivated by personal benefits, adoption mirrors the health and wellness progression reported by The Hartman Group, whereby consumers first consider the impacts of things in the body, followed by on the body and finally around the body. As consumers become more educated about the environmental, social and economic implications of food and beverage choices, their health and wellness motivations dovetail with larger societal concerns. A tautological relationship develops between sustainability and emerging definitions of quality, as consumers use sustainable attributes to infer quality, and quality to infer sustainability.

Therefore, many of the attributes that consumers generally use to describe quality eating experiences also resonate as sustainable. Consumers use the notion of freshness, for example, to describe quality as well as sustainable food products. Because freshness resonates as sustainable, packaging communications for sustainable foods should connect products to their natural, earthly source, bearing images and descriptions of the raw ingredients themselves [m] along with sourcing cues as to where ingredients are grown, emphasizing local connections where relevant.

Consumers think of local as meaning at least “regional” in provenance, and of sources within a 50- to 100-mile radius of home as “truly local.” While local lacks the standardization of the organic designation, the sense of “knowability” related to the who, how and where of local foods leads many sustainability-minded consumers to place local foods at least on par with organic. These consumers credit local as well as organic foods with the absence of the negatives (factory farming, industrial processing, over-packaging of products and energy-intensive distribution routes) that they associate with conventional farming and food products.

With local, organic and also bulk products, consumers are keenly aware of the active role retailers play in providing their customers with sustainable product options. Farmers’ markets and specialty retailers act not only as product suppliers, but also as evangelists for sustainable food trends. Conventional supermarket chains have also stepped up to the plate.

Despite a rising and multifaceted commitment to sustainability, most consumers (and retailers) have been forced by the recession to rethink product options that cost more. On the whole, consumer willingness to pay more for environmentally friendly products has slipped a notch since the economic collapse in 2008. Even so, as The Hartman Group has predicted, consumers who seek out sustainable goods are less likely to make trade-offs and cutbacks in product categories they view as essential to their quality of life, with food at the top of that list.

Experian Simmons data confirm that there has been no drastic change in consumer propensity to purchase organic or natural foods. Between winter 2007/08 (before the economic meltdown) and spring 2009 (in the wake of it), the percentage of adults who agree a lot that they “especially look for organic or natural foods” dipped only slightly, from 12 percent to 11 percent, while the percentage who agree a little held steady.

Patterns for Agreement With Statement, “When Shopping for Food, I Especially Look for Organic or Natural Foods,” Winter 2007/08 vs. Spring 2009

Source: Packaged Facts, based on data from Experian Simmons National Consumer Study. Data are used with permission.

Although sales of natural and organic foods are hardly immune to the recession, consumer commitment to sustainable products will continue to spur solid growth for the market: Packaged Facts projects that U.S. retail sales of natural and organic foods will grow at about 8 percent annually through 2013. Consumption by core sustainability consumers will remain strong, and purchasing may increase among a segment of peripheral shoppers as they curtail more costly eating and wellness outlays (including dining out).

At the same time, retailers who feature locally grown produce and bulk food products will provide ideal shopping options for sustainability-minded consumers in a recessionary economy.  Sustainability prioritizes the stewardship of resources, and these cost savings can be passed along to the consumer. The market is ripe for strategies that enable consumers to shop more sustainably without spending more money.

This article, the first of a four-part series, draws from “Consumers and Sustainability: Food and Beverage” (September 2009), a joint publication of The Hartman Group and Packaged Facts. (