‘Sustainable’ term still confusing U.S. consumers

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A new study by Technomic finds that the term "sustainable" is still confusing for U.S. consumers.  While many Americans understand what "organic" means, they are less clear on what constitutes "natural" or "sustainable", and their inclination to purchase products labeled as such drops accordingly.  Read about related findings in this article by Seafood Source's Christine Blank.


By Christine Blank, SeafoodSource contributing editor

October 22, 2010

Although more consumers purchase organic, local and sustainable foods, they are most confused about foods that are “sustainable,” according to a new survey.

Seventy-eight percent of people surveyed said they purchase local food or order it at restaurants at least once a month, and 59 percent order or buy sustainable food, according to Technomic’s survey of 1,500 American consumers in its new “The Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report.” In addition, 75 percent of respondents purchase and order “natural” foods at least once a month, while 55 percent eat “organic” foods monthly.

However, there is still a lot of confusion about what the terms “natural,” “organic” and “sustainable” mean. Forty-five percent of consumers who never purchase sustainable foods said they do not know what the term means, compared to 16 percent of consumers who do not understand what “organic” means.

“‘Sustainable’ is a much more vague and ambiguous term than something like ‘organic,’ which consumers understand much more clearly. There is confusion because “sustainable” cannot be connected to one simple type of product or method,” said Kelly Weikel, consumer research manager for Chicago-based Technomic.

In addition, 37 percent of those who never eat sustainable foods said they are confused about the health benefits of the foods. Thirty-four percent said that the benefits do not outweigh the additional costs, and 33 percent said they do not have extra money to spend on sustainable foods.

In fact, cost was the main deterrent among consumers who do not purchase local, natural, organic and sustainable foods. Forty-two percent of those who don’t eat sustainable foods said they are too expensive, while a whopping 78 percent said organic items are too expensive, 52 percent said natural foods are too costly, and 32 percent said local foods cost too much.

However, consumers who do purchase these types of foods said they do so primarily because they are less processed than traditional options and most are of higher quality. Forty-seven percent of consumers also believe that sustainable foods are better for the environment, a significantly higher percentage than those who believe local, organic and natural items are better for the environment.

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