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Closing the gap in sustainability: Opportunities to connect with consumers

The Hartman Group looks at how consumer familiarity with “sustainability” has grown steadily, but their confidence in identifying specific sustainable products and companies continues to lag behind.

6 min read

Consumer InsightsFood

Sustainability, packaging


For consumers today, the topic of sustainability — which was red-hot even prior to COVID-19 and the rise of inflation — has been not so quietly reignited, fanned by broadening and emphatic demands for social justice, a renewed spotlight on climate change, and broadened concerns about environmental and social well-being. As measured in biennial Hartman Group studies stretching back over 20 years, with so many clear connections to the term, familiarity with “sustainability” has grown steadily, but consumer confidence in identifying specific sustainable products and companies continues to lag behind. 

Illustrating how sustainability’s importance as a purchase criterion has grown over time: our most recent white paper on the topic (Closing the Gap in Sustainability) reports that 28% of consumers say they always or usually base their purchases on sustainability criteria—a rise of 16% from 2007. If younger consumers are an indicator of future trends, sustainable purchasing will continue to rise, since millennials are more apt to say they “vote with their dollars” (for sustainability) when making purchases: 44% of millennials say they base their purchases on sustainability factors compared to just 16% of Baby Boomers.

Based on the level of commitment voiced by younger consumers to sustainable progress, we believe that as the opportunity gap closes, sustainable purchasing will also increase. Companies in the food and beverage space can help consumers live in accordance with their values by taking a loud and clear stand in this arena. However, closing the gap on sustainability awareness among consumers is different than it used to be: 

First, sustainable products no longer equate with inferior quality expectations in the minds of consumers, so there’s a reduced need to expend energy convincing consumers of your merit. Quality and sustainability are mutually reinforcing attributes with both denoting a product crafted with greater care and attention taken by your company.

Second, focus is essential: sustainability is a broad, multidimensional construct, and consumers expect activation in areas that are most relevant for your brand, categories and company. This second point implies that businesses should focus on the intersecting issues that consumers care about most and where your business and brands can meaningfully make a difference. With regard to beliefs about sustainability, more engaged consumers even see connections among environmental and social issues, so business actions in one area may allow you to have impacts in other areas where consumers perceive relevance.

Examples of issues that link to sustainability that consumers care about today include:

Environmental issues like packaging, plastics and pollution, resource use and climate change. Linked to environmental issues is also a growing recognition among consumers of agriculture’s role in environmental problems.

Within the environmental topic of packaging and plastics, consumers feel they can make a tangible impact through recycling but hold companies responsible for making it possible. Many consumers admit that this consideration comes into play primarily at the moment of disposal rather than the time of purchase. Still, with recyclability important to a majority of consumers (63% say they are “avid recyclers”), it is worth making recyclable packaging a priority to ensure that consumers will continue purchasing a given product. Importantly, an increasing percentage of consumers want companies to rethink the need for packaging in the first place. 

On the topics of pollution, resource use, and climate change, awareness of environmental issues related to pollution and resource use is widespread, but the level of nuance and alignment with action is predicted by consumers’ degree of involvement with sustainability beliefs themselves. For example, consumers who are most active in sustainable beliefs and practices tend to have a deeper understanding of the complex, systemic interactions between these issues. Overall, pollution, resource use, and climate change are 3 of the top 4 issues consumers want companies to tackle. 41% of consumers say they think climate change is one of the most important sustainability issues for companies and businesses to focus on “right now.”

Social issues, where consumers are increasingly making connections between company sustainability efforts and potential impact on labor (e.g., fair compensation, safe working conditions), social justice, and economic vulnerability factors.

Related to linkages made between sustainability and social matters, labor issues in the food industry are gaining mainstream attention, particularly as the pandemic shined a light on the indispensable nature of these workers. More than 4 in 5 consumers said that they were aware of issues around providing a living wage for workers in food retail and food service, and 2 in 3 were interested in and concerned about this issue, rendering it fully mainstream. Certifications like Fair Trade and Fair for Life can signal good labor practices to consumers, but so can company transparency around how workers are treated throughout the production process, from growing raw materials to the cashier at the checkout stand.

While consumers see social justice as largely separate from environmental sustainability, they are concerned about—and increasingly committed to—addressing social inequalities. Younger consumers are particularly attuned to social justice. For example, Gen Zs especially emphasize sourcing from suppliers from underprivileged groups and want companies to focus on hiring for diversity. But interest in social justice is present more broadly across the population; for instance, 61% of consumers say they look for products from companies that support social justice causes and 63% say they have boycotted companies or brands for environmental, social, or labor reasons (up 7 percentage points from 2019).

Closing the Sustainability Gap

Despite their relative inability to identify specific sustainable products and companies, there are opportunities for companies and brands in the food and beverage space to stand out from the crowd and clearly communicate their sustainable practices and product attributes. Overall, consumers want to reward you with their purchases: a majority of consumers (79%) are willing to trust companies’ claims about sustainability efforts, though younger generations express more cynicism. 

To begin to close the sustainability gap, we believe that companies and brands should:

  • Determine where they can have the biggest impacts, environmentally or socially. Focus your efforts there, but take actions in adjacent arenas to demonstrate your understanding of sustainability as a web of interconnected issues.
  • Audit your portfolio of brands, products, and company practices for consistent compliance with your sustainability commitments. Misalignments will undermine the good work you are doing.
  • Finally, be loud and proud of your sustainability practices by sharing information on pack, at shelf, through traditional and social media, and beyond. Consumers generally are willing to trust companies when they communicate about sustainable actions, but many will seek to verify such claims themselves. Offer transparency to facilitate their due diligence.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.


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