Sustainability Starts With Consumers

Automobile companies have announced plans to phase out most gas-powered engines and transition exclusively to electric cars. The food system should be taking notes.

The same consumers who want to drive low-carbon vehicles want to eat foods that are produced in a sustainable manner. Expectations from shoppers about how their food is grown, processed, shipped and packaged will continue to increase.

Concern about climate change and pressure to grow food more sustainably have both increased significantly in the past year. While agriculture has always valued being a good steward of land, water and animals, the food system now expects more. Consumers often voiced support for sustainability but were not willing to pay more to support alternative production systems. Case in point – several years ago many retailers responded to consumer pressure to sell only cage-free eggs. As egg producers geared up to make costly modifications and build new facilities, the majority of shoppers continued to prefer less expensive conventional eggs.

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But the latest digital ethnographic research, presented by Look East’s client The Center for Food Integrity, shows a paradigm shift. Sustainability is a key value to consumers across the board and they are choosing foods produced in a way that aligns with their values. The growth in alternative proteins has been largely driven by people who are concerned about animal agriculture’s environmental impact and the care animals receive.

Sustainability now encompasses far more than just carbon footprint.

What has changed:

  • COVID-19. The world was upended by a virus and consumers are now on guard against other threats. They wonder what else might be in the environment that could harm them or their families. They are paying closer attention to their health, choosing foods they believe are safer and healthier. The pandemic that forced us to socially distance has also given us greater empathy for each other. Consumers are now highly aware of food insecurity and they are calling on the system to address food waste and distribution problems. We are attuned to equality for all citizens. Consumers expect to see companies caring for their workers.
  • Climate Change. Extreme weather events and government attention to climate action are causing many people to consider how their consumption affects their world. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. consumers have changed their purchases as a result.
  • Gen Z. Millennials raised sustainability’s profile, but Gen Z – those born after 1995 – are making sustainability their defining issue. Research shows 62 percent of Gen Z shoppers prefer to buy from sustainable brands.

Sustainability is front and center for consumers, which creates tremendous opportunity for the food system. Gen Z consumers and farmers agree that sustainability is the most important issue to solve, according to a new global study on the future of food.

The public is eager for more insight into how their food is grown. They may be surprised to learn that many of the foods they enjoy are produced by those who embrace the same values.

The future of the food system will be brightest for those who can prioritize their sustainability goals, evaluate the tradeoffs, and communicate those to their stakeholders. Our years of experience in helping organizations in the food system gain consumer trust can help guide you through the sustainability landscape.