(1211)#foodrecipes | Consumers still care about sustainability amid pandemic, report finds

Dive Brief:

  • Nearly half of consumers say the pandemic has made them more concerned about the environment with 11% saying they have shifted their purchases based on environmental claims within the past year, according to a new survey from global management and consulting firm Kearney emailed to Food Dive. The survey was conducted with 1,000 consumers on both March 6 and April 10.
  • The number of consumers who take the environment into consideration when making purchases has increased since last year — and even since the pandemic started. In 2019, 71% took that into consideration at least occasionally. On March 6 of this year, 78% felt that way. And on April 10, after several weeks where most people were at home to deter coronavirus spread, 83% of consumers said they considered the environment.
  • About 78% of those surveyed said companies could be doing more to clearly explain the environmental impacts of their products. But fewer consumers think high prices are the biggest barrier to buying items with environmental claims, with the number decreasing 4 percentage points since last year, to 49%. However, more consumers said lack of access to these products in their local stores made them unable to buy them.

Dive Insight:

For years, consumer concern regarding sustainability practices has been on the rise, and this survey from Kearney is yet another indication that these efforts are no longer a luxury but an expectation — even during a pandemic.

According to a study from Nielsen in 2018, almost half of U.S. consumers are likely to change what they buy to align with environmental standards. Kearney's survey found that two years later, eight in 10 consumers consider the environmental impacts of their purchases.

"This year we see consumers expressing a more direct link between their health and the health of the planet,"  Corey Chafin, one of the co-architects of the study, said. "This tells us consumers’ pro-environmental sentiments are more than idealistic assertions."

As activists and governments alike warn the time to slow climate change is growing short and the health of the globe has been shifted into stark relief by the ongoing threat of the coronavirus, concerns about sustainability are unlikely to take a back seat to price and convenience. One of the most significant findings from the Kearney study highlights that certain aspects of convenience are now secondary to sustainability.

Plastics have fallen out of favor for consumers in recent years. In the survey, 85% of respondents expressed a commitment to turn down plastic utensils with food orders in the next 12 months. Similarly, there was a 37% increase in willingness to use reusable drinkware, and a 21% bump in intention to bring reusable shopping bags to stores. The likelihood that consumers will purchase in bulk to save on individual packaging jumped 164% from a year ago.

This study showed the climbing rates of illness and death associated with COVID-19 did not significantly impact consumer commitment to incremental improvement in the environmental sustainability of their shopping practices. Even as the grocery and foodservice industries are being radically transformed, sustainability remains a key factor for consumers. The Kearney survey points out the trend toward mindful stewardship was well underway, but consumers’ unwavering dedication is a sign they view planetary and human health as intertwined and are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

In addition to the survey’s clear indication the will is there to shop more sustainably, it appears more consumers are willing to pay to do so. Already, Nielsen found companies have a monetary motivation to switch to more environmentally friendly practices, as two-thirds of customers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands — and this number is continually rising.

Profit is not the only reason for companies to focus on sustainability. Label Insight estimated manufacturers who adopt complete transparency are rewarded with consumer loyalty rates of about 94%. With multiple benefits to be gleaned from sustainable business practices, many companies, including Nestlé, Lindt, Mars, Mondelez, Cargill and Barry Callebaut have jumped on the bandwagon and pledged investments in sustainability. A recent report by Ceres found two-thirds of the more than 600 of the largest U.S. public companies have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and more than half have formal policies to manage water resources. 

But multiple organizations have shown these can be empty promises. Last year, the Coller Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) Protein Producer Index found the vast majority of large meat and dairy companies "have yet to meaningfully address even the most basic sustainability risks." Similarly, Greenpeace reported that CPG companies have not shown any significant progress on their sustainability goals. A study from the Barilla Foundation noted companies don't provide enough information about their efforts — a complaint that was echoed by consumers in the Kearney survey.

Perhaps now is the time for companies to commit to these promises and show consumers that when the world is in trouble, they are willing to make a difference where they can.