Sustainability — more than a trend? What consumers expect & what food businesses offer

Elena Vardanian
3 min read

No doubt that last year‘s pandemic has taught us a hard lesson in food supply chain resilience and sustainability. It transforms the Food, Beverage & Agriculture (FB&A) industry and forces leaders to make hard decisions to future-proof their business model.

A recent global analysis conducted by Edelman Data x Intelligence on behalf of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) takes a closer look at the environmental sustainability commitments of the food, beverage and agricultural sectors. Survey of industry leaders, employees and consumers shows a growing expectation and enthusiasm for a regenerative, nature-positive food system. 

“Doing good” over “no harm”

The role of sustainability has extended far from preventing harm to the environment, and centered now on doing proactive good by investments in sustainability. This has become clear and necessary to take action at the most senior levels of organizational leadership. However, informed consumers are willing to know how the investments in sustainability are being integrated into the organization’s operations. Recent research (based on a survey across eight major markets, with a total of 4,368 respondents surveyed, fielded between September 9 and 24, 2020) shows consumers and industry stakeholders share a desire for transformation.

Respondents said the food sector must strive to go beyond the traditional imperative to “do no harm” and use “doing good” instead. All populations surveyed agreed that environmental sustainability is of utmost importance – only behind safety. But research also shows that sustainability is tied with the functional needs of meeting consumer demands in volume and quality, but not across all markets (e.g., U.S., U.K., China, and Brazil tend to be a bit more focused on customer demand at the time). Simultaneously, everyone agrees the greater priority for FB&A companies has now become doing good for the environment versus doing no harm.

Experts suggest companies that still treat environmental sustainability as a CSR-initiative to start integrating it more formally into their core operations, strategy, and brand identity. Brands leading in sustainability already should continue to focus on maximizing their ability to “do good” (2).

Environmental risks are a top concern for executives

Around 800 decision makers in FB&A put environmental risk factors over operational concerns globally. Problems of climate change and water quality are top of mind for these business leaders—even more than the clear and present risks of pandemics and disease.

Over half of business leaders surveyed (55%) reporting increased levels of investment in environmental sustainability. On average, decision makers say their companies are allocating 13.5% of earnings to environmental sustainability. Due to survey data, decision makers are dually-motivated to engage; they agree it’s their duty and feel it’s good for business (2). The recognition of nature’s resources together with investments in green recovery restores confidence and represents an opportunity for immediate progress.

Sustainability at reasonable price

Even with the sector increasing investments, consumers continue to think FB&A businesses lag in delivering on sustainability, according to a TCA survey. On the other hand, consumers accept (and expect) that companies are both motivated to do good and to safeguard their business (2).

What’s more, a Van Westendorp analysis discovered that consumers' expectations increased across all price-points, including bargain level pricing 67%, premium-level pricing 43%, and the “optimal” price point 36%. That doesn’t mean that consumers are ready to pay more for sustainability; it is more about a value proposition inherent to sustainability that could encourage consumer partnership, action and loyalty (1).

However, for some consumers from less linear connection to farming/agriculture and categories where personal preferences are seen as being under attack (e.g., plant-based vs. meat) tend to see flat or decreased returns for sustainably produced products, indicating an external influence more important to the consumer population than sustainability. 

The Bottom Line

A recent global analysis conducted by Edelman Data x Intelligence on behalf of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) shows that FB&A industry is slowly transforming. Both executives and consumers agree to be involved in proactive initiatives and support them financially choosing a greener path for industry.