The definition of sustainability is as diverse as the consumers who seek it out in their every day purchases.
Many consumers identify it is as being environmentally friendly, where products are free of certain amendments. They expect their food to be safe and they are starting to expect that sustainable practices were used to make it.
“Environmental stewardship or sustainability have become as important to consumers as food safety, which is interesting,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Laboratory at Dalhousie University.
There is an awakening among consumers, and the younger generation is more socially conscious.
“People who do believe there is a climate crisis will also believe, likely, that instead of waiting for government or business to act, they can act on their own and change their food habits as much as possible,” he said.
Ellen Goddard, professor and co-operative chair of agricultural marketing and business at the University of Alberta , agreed that the environmental pillar is starting to resonate more with consumers.
People tell her they think sustainability is important but may not define it the same way, said Goddard.
“Everybody would say they know what sustainability is, but are they all using the same definition? I don’t think so,” she said.
“People who buy organic food do it because they think it is a more sustainable production practice. That is the only thing they can tangibly get their head around.”
Her research on sustainability has covered different approaches, such as genomics and consumer acceptance. For example, producing feed efficient beef cattle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may resonate with farmers but perhaps not as much with the general public.
There is a small segment of the population who sincerely care about these issues.
“That product only appeals to the people who already have a well articulated and very strong environmental belief that we need to do something to protect the environment,” she said.
People who believe that the current issues will somehow work themselves out have no interest in products that have sustainability associated with them.
“The buzz about the environment doesn’t really attract the majority of the population, but if you already have strong environmental concerns it definitely attracts you and you are willing to pay to make sure you get that,” she said.
Her research has shown people seem less concerned about the social and economic pillars of sustainability. The social aspect is most confusing for people, and the economic pillar creates mixed feelings. They are more sympathetic if they hear farmers are suffering financially, but most of the time the economics plank is not high on their list of concerns.
People do read labels but may be bombarded with information overload.
“We are over-labelling food,” she said. “There is no question people are being overwhelmed to a certain extent about the food.”
A global sustainability report from the Nielsen Corporation found that 73 percent of global consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.
Since 2013, more companies have got on the sustainability platform for ethical and marketing reasons.
“It is not just about outperforming your competition but making sure your company keeps pace so as not to get left behind,” Julia Wilson, director of global responsibility and sustainability for Nielsen, said during a recent webinar.
“Sustainability is increasingly tied to innovation, and it is seen as a value driver for growth in sales and customer loyalty and increasing market share. Companies are increasingly seeing embedding sustainability as the core of what they do and what they offer to the world every day.”
Consumers want to see corporations taking sustainability seriously from the boardroom to the suppliers.
“No longer is the purchasing decision boiling down to a simple equation of how much it costs and how much do I want this item,” Wilson said. “Consumers are really thinking more deeply about (sustainability) before their moment of purchase and what will happen to packaging after they are done using it.”
People want more transparency, and they link their consumption decisions to the concept of “healthy for me” as well as how one’s actions affect the world.
Nielsen found overall growth in sales of sustainable foods and beverages in 2018.
“Sustainability does sell,” said Wilson.
Products without clean labels or sustainability attributes showed slower growth than products with claims. Claims cover a wide range of attributes, including sustainable farming, humane treatment of animals, environmental care, improved health and wellness or green energy use such as wind power.
The survey found that sustainable shoppers come in many forms. Millennials are leading the charge in terms of the relative importance of sustainability, but seniors who are using food as medicine may be equally interested.
The sustainable products may be anything from eggs to cosmetics.
“It is easy for us to have a narrow focus and market to a certain consumer segment, but the reality is we can’t lose sight of how sustainability is transforming everything around us,” said Sarah Schmansky, vice-president of fresh/health and wellness, growth and strategy for Nielsen.
People want to live sustainable lives, but they may not vote with their dollars and buy sustainable products.
“Those who are purchasing sustainable products are well educated, they do have higher incomes and they do tend to live in prosperous urban areas.”
The report found that 41 percent of consumers globally said they were willing to pay more for natural or organic products, for example. Retailers are trying to fill in the gap, offering a wider array of products.
“We all know for now, price remains supreme but as we become more educated than ever we are willing to invest in products and companies that do the right thing,” she said.
“The rise of cause-related marketing will continue to influence our purchases and behaviours.”