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Food brands shouldn’t wait for consumers to lead on sustainability

Consumers say they want more sustainable food choices. But do they know what they are talking about?

Sustainable logos

Consumers know they want to be more sustainable but don't always know which logos to look for. Image by Jesse Klein

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

Catering to consumers’ preferences and needs is key for all companies — after all, there’s no use in manufacturing products that aren’t in demand. But for food companies, a focus on preferences and habits is even more deeply engrained. Therefore, demonstrating that consumers care about (and pay for) sustainability practices has been top of mind for sustainability departments when making the case for their budgets and initiatives. 

But it’s not a straightforward thing to prove. Consumers are people — and therefore complicated. What do they really know about sustainability? How does this affect their food choices? And what should companies do with that information?

It’s hard to fathom, but consumers still don’t have a good grip on sustainability. Reviewing this year’s Earth Day sustainability polls and other studies, GreenBiz co-founder Joel Makower found that most people can’t point to the highest-impact climate actions they could take. They’re unlikely to make changes in their lives that would result in significant carbon savings. This brings Makower to a sobering conclusion: "After all these decades and countless billions of dollars spent on marketing and communications, the public still doesn’t know how to embrace climate solutions."

This general lack of knowledge extends to food systems. Consumers' beliefs about food sustainability and nutrition don’t align neatly with scientific evidence, according to recent data from Consumer Food Insights, a monthly survey of more than 1,200 Americans from across the country by the Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability (CFDAS) at Purdue University. 

Bar graph

Consumer agreement with claims about food and nutrition, March 2022, Graph courtesy of Purdue University.

A wealth of scientific evidence demonstrates that agriculture significantly contributes to climate change, genetically modified food is safe to eat and that, on average, local food isn’t better for the environment. But those facts haven’t landed with the general public yet. 

Food industry trend surveys point out similar gaps. A 2021 Mondelez International survey of global consumers found that 85 percent of respondents "either buy or would like to buy snacks from companies that are working to offset their environmental impact." Respondents said that products with low waste and recyclable packaging are top of mind for them — which, again, is not top of mind for climate scientists. 

In another survey, Cargill found a 6-point increase between 2019 and 2022 in U.S. consumers claiming to be "more likely to purchase packaged food with a sustainability claim," which now applies to 37 percent of participants. When evaluating such products, respondents favor "sustainably sourced" (63 percent) and "responsibly produced" (57 percent) over "fair trade" (46 percent) claims, despite that the former two are vague marketing terms while fair trade claims tend to be third-party verified. Some of these proclaimed intentions also translate to sales. The natural and organic product industry, for example, grew by 7.7 percent in 2021 to $274 billion. 

But overall, taste, nutrition and affordability still trump consumers’ sustainability interests. Purdue’s data shows that these three characteristics account for about a quarter each of consumers’ priorities and there’s little difference between urban and rural people. Environmental and social responsibility only factor into the public’s decision-making with about 9 percent each.

Bar graph

Share of 100 points allocated to food attributes by month and geography, January - April 2022, Graph courtesy of Purdue University.


To me, this translates to a simple message for food brands: Stop playing chicken and egg with consumers. Assume responsibility for your social and environmental footprint in your operations and across the entire value chain where the largest impact lies. Today’s climate, biodiversity and social justice crises are too urgent for brands to wait until most consumers are ready. 

Besides, there’s a whole lot food companies can do to influence what consumers want. People don’t live in a vacuum. Their opinions and desires are influenced by friends, family, teachers, news, advertisements and so on. 

Instead of using marketing efforts to hype individual brands and products, companies could launch holistic campaigns that educate people rather than spread confusing messages about nutrition and climate. And let’s also put lobbying dollars to work to accelerate the biggest-hitting climate solutions and clearly communicate them to the public. This way, companies will pave the way for sustainable purchasing, rather than chasing fleeting consumer trends. 

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