Consumers and sustainability
Consumers are interested in the story behind sustainable products.
The media, environmentalists, retailers, agriculture, and a host of other industries have used the word “sustainability” to describe practices that show a concern for the earth and people in a manner that is economically viable. Certification programs have sprung up to verify that producers are using sustainable practices. But what do consumers think about sustainability? Do they even understand the term?
Since 1989, The Hartman Group, based in Bellevue, Washington, has studied environmental issues from the consumer’s point of view to provide data and counsel to companies interested in the environmental habits and aspirations of consumers. One of their latest reports, “Sustainability: the Rise of Consumer Responsibility,” combined a national online survey with field observations and interviews to better understand consumer beliefs about sustainability.
Melissa Abbott, who shared results during the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, said that while most consumers don’t use or really understand the term sustainability, they do consider environmental and social aspects when making purchase decisions. Responsibility is the new consumer platform. Consumers want good products, but they also want producers to be responsible, have integrity, and treat workers, the planet, and animals well. They are interested in the story behind sustainable products—the people and places, though not so much the process. Abbott is the trends and culinary insights manager for The Hartman Group.
Of the three consumer segments, the midlevel and periphery groups make up 88 percent of consumers, Abbott said. “The hardcore sustainable is not a large consumer segment [12 percent], but she sets the trend—things will be filtered through her and distilled down to the midlevel consumer.”
When the Hartman Group asked consumers what sustainability means, 76 percent answered “the ability to last a long time,” with other answers relating to supporting or taking care of oneself.
“The word ‘sustainability’ isn’t something that strikes a chord with the consumer,” she said. “What we think of to describe sustainability is quite different from what consumers think.”
That doesn’t mean that environmental responsibility is not important to consumers—they just use terms other than sustainability to describe it, she explained.
When asked what organic means to them, the surveyed consumers answered more about the absence of practices that they perceive as harmful to them, such as use of pesticides, growth hormones, herbicides, and such. Only 17 percent replied that organic meant sustainable production or locally grown.
• 85 percent wanted companies to provide a quality product.
• 79 percent wanted companies to provide a safe working environment for employees.
• 72 percent wanted companies to provide good wages to their workers.
The Hartman Group also interviewed consumers in their homes. “What consumers say isn’t necessarily what they do,” Abbott said, adding that they have aspirations to be green, but when you go into their kitchens and look in their garages, you often find a different story.
A look in the cupboards and refrigerators of consumers in the study showed that everyday foods, such as vegetables, fruits, milk, yogurt, eggs, cereal, and coffee were likely to be organic. Processed foods were less likely to be organic than fresh foods, she said.
“Wines are already perceived as being sustainable in the consumer’s mind, so using organic or sustainable messaging to promote it is largely unnecessary,” she said, adding that some may consider it greenwashing.
But in other food product categories, like milk, organic is an antidote to perceived flaws of an industrial production system, which are said to be producing negative health effects, such as the bovine growth hormone in milk. “People think wine is made the old-fashioned way by passionate people in a bucolic setting,” she said. “They don’t perceive wine in the same category as industrial food products—cereal, milk, bread.”
For companies interested in marketing the sustainability of their brands in a way that resonates with consumers, Abbott offers a few tips:
1. Speak to consumers in their words rather than marketing or industry jargon. Stay oriented to consumer definitions of sustainability (connection, care, community, and authenticity), not industry definitions.
2. Link the product to a personal benefit, such as the enjoyment of drinking wine.
3. Understand that sustainability is not simply an environmental concern, but includes people and place.
4. Tell the story behind the sustainable product. Be transparent about your processes.
5. Connect value with quality and share the inherent values of your product.