When it comes to sustainability, consumer pressure is playing a growing role as the food industry begins interweaving greener practices into corporate culture.
"There's been a steady increase in companies paying attention to sustainability issues and talking about it externally," said William Sarni, director and practice leader of enterprise water strategy at Deloitte Consulting. "The recent pressure to find sustainable solutions is coming from consumers, NGOs and other stakeholders, including employees."
That's not surprising given that, in the minds of many consumers, health and sustainability are clearly linked, experts say.
"Consumers are trending toward healthier food choices and organic products, while tuning in to product sourcing and responsible manufacturing practices," said Pat Conroy, vice chairman and U.S. consumer products leader at Deloitte. “Deloitte’s Consumer Food & Product Insight survey found that half of consumers would like to see more organic products, and nearly three quarters (72 percent) say companies’ sustainable food production practices are important to them."
You might think that would give the food industry an advantage in actually selling more sustainablly grown and organic products. But it turns out that food isn't exempt from the same challenges that other industries have noted: While consumers say they want greener goods, they aren't necessarily buying them. The paradox puts companies in the position of having to find ways to persuade consumers to make greener choices, even when some of the sustainability initiatives may have stemmed from consumers saying they care about sustainability in the first place.
For food, safety, price and the quality of products are still the major reasons consumers make their selections, analysts say.
"Certainly there are some consumers that, to some degree focus, on the nutritional aspect of food and sourcing issues," Sarni said. "But very few are thinking about how much water goes into manufacturing a product or what a company's carbon footprint is."
Sarni said that despite the fact that consumer dollars may not be in play, there's clear value in companies carving out sustainability policies and programs.
"Sustainability, in some ways, is a separate issue because the value of the industry tackling resource issues connected to supply chains is hugely important," he said. "Even if there wasn't a single consumer that cares about sustainability, companies care because there are so many critical issues tied to things like water and energy use."
Over the next few years, consumer buying habits may change as some industry giants work to become eco-leaders.
Burger King (NYSE: BKC), for example, is now pledging to switch to 100 percent cage-free eggs by 2017 and to eliminate gestation crates for breeding pigs.
McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) also recently put some weight behind their efforts. The Oak Brook, Ill-based company over the last several years has launched a wide variety of environmental policies and programs.
But before the food industry can lead in sustainability, it will have to tackle some tough issues.
"In the next five years food production will be focusing on water usage, which is a big challenge, and product-level packaging. There will have been some gains in these areas but much more work to be done," said sustainability consultant Robert Kuhn, the president of Kuhn Associates Management Advisors.