Consumers and Sustainability: Food and Beverage

Gourmet Retailer logo2 The Gourmet Retailer has an in depth look at green consumerism as it relates to the food and beverage industry.  The author points out the particular relevance of the industry to the green consumer mindset due to people's greater concern for things that are ingested, as opposed to just environmental.

Posted Sept. 29, 2009
By David Sprinkle, Packaged Facts, The Gourmet Retailer

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

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 — 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

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

Packaged Facts

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 is the first part of a four-part series, published by The
Gourmet Retailer
's sister brand Progressive Grocer in
its monthly Health & Wellness Trend Alert.

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