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Sustainability in Purchasing: Food and the Environment, the Consumer Perspective

Farmer coupleThe food and beverage category is central to consumers’ perceptions of sustainability. Our research has proven over the years that consumers view the food and beverage category as salient across all zones of responsibility (environmental, personal, social and economic) and in fact consider the category as one of the most important sustainability issues. As one consumer said, “Food is so basic. Everyone must have it, and it impacts everything. So it only makes sense that sustainability has to start with food.”

In the past decade, consumer awareness of sustainability has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2008, slightly more than half of consumers (56 percent) said they were familiar with the term sustainability, compared to today, where most consumers (83 percent, according to our Sustainability 2017 report) are familiar with sustainability as a term.

Sustainability plays a significant role in influencing purchase decisions. More than a quarter of consumers (26 percent) claim that environmental and social concerns impact much of their purchasing, and 22 percent of consumers say they have increased their sustainable purchasing this past year.

Consumers want to buy “earth-sustainable” products — a term we first used in our Food and the Environment report in 1996, when at the time, about 52 percent of consumers said they want to buy earth-sustainable food products but most don’t because they can’t easily find earth-sustainable products that meet their purchase criteria. Today, lack of knowledge remains a big barrier to sustainable purchasing. More than half of consumers (53 percent) say that when weighing sustainability factors against other priorities in their purchasing, they simply do not know which companies share their values. And slightly more than four in ten consumers (44 percent) say that they do not know which products are sustainable.

Earth-Sustainable and the Consumer Connection

Knowing what the consumer wants is central to any marketing strategy for earth-sustainable food and beverage products. Not fully understanding how consumer engagement varies within the world of sustainability often lies at the heart of why many sustainable food and beverage product introductions fail to maximize results.

The goal of The Hartman Group’s research and consulting work has been to help the producers, makers and marketers of food and beverage products develop new products that make the link between the consumers’ concerns about sustainability’s zones of responsibility and the way the food and beverage products they buy are produced.

What dose sustainability mean to you

While different forces and concerns shape how consumers take action on sustainability, purchasing is a primary arena for most. Animal welfare continues to grow as an important area of sustainable purchasing, likely due to its compelling overlap of the personal, social and environmental zones of responsibility.

Consumers are increasingly drawing connections between their own health and the conditions in which animals are raised. Animal welfare has become a clear case of “better for me, better for the world” for the majority of consumers. Consumers across the board feel a moral desire for animals to have at least avoided unnecessary suffering, and they also equate such a life with both personal health and wider sustainability benefits.

Our Sustainability 2017 report finds that definitions of sustainability increasingly relate to responsible agricultural and natural resource practices, while concerns for fair treatment of both animals and workers are on the rise. Almost half of consumers (48 percent) say that when deciding which food and beverage products to purchase, it is very important that the company that produces the product avoids inhumane treatment of animals.

Looking Ahead

Consumers understand now, more than ever before, that the agricultural practices that bring the food to their tables have a tremendous impact on the environment because of the millions of acres in this country that are dedicated to crops, orchards and pasturelands. They understand that their food and beverage choices can make a difference by creating the demand that will motivate producers and food and beverage manufacturers to develop earth-sustainable products.

Get the answers that shed new light on your questions to help inform, inspire and guide the development of your earth-sustainable food and beverage products: Sustainability 2017 report



Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Retail/Shopper Insights Sustainability Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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