What’s driving consumer demand for sustainable food options at the grocery store?

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Posted Jan 04, 2023
Elana Marmorstein

Several studies have shown that sustainability continues to be a key trend to watch in 2023. It is clear that consumers are highly interested in finding “greener” alternatives to everyday products, and many are even willing to pay higher prices to get them. But, what are the driving factors behind this interest? Is it a short-term cultural change or a foundational shift in perspective? These are the questions our research team at aytm recently set out to answer. Here’s what we found.

Walking the walk: Sustainability in practice

Our research found that a majority of  American consumers (57%) believe that leading a sustainable lifestyle is important. That number is even higher for parents and consumers with at least some college education. This is consistent with research from other firms. What does sustainability mean in these consumers’ minds? Simply put, the environment, animal welfare, and workers’ rights. This is likely one of the key driving factors behind the growing demand for more sustainable options. 

Research demonstrates that consumers are interested in putting sustainability into practice and want to support companies in taking action. Our analysis also shows that the typical consumer (52%) wants to know the impact their food choices have on the world. And increased awareness about climate issues and broader sustainability topics are two major driving forces behind consumer demand. 

Indeed, consumers are taking action in their own lives across the board. The most popular acts are recycling (60%) and reducing food waste at home (60%). Many consumers also use reusable bags when grocery shopping and focus on eating out less. 

When asked about the characteristics of sustainable food, consumer responses can be divided into four main categories:

  • Environmental impact
  • Efficiently produced
  • Healthy and natural
  • Eco-friendly packaging

This research provides a more precise definition and picture of what consumers mean when they say they are interested in sustainable products. People want to know that the products they buy aren’t hurting the environment. They also care that their products are efficiently produced and manufactured in a way that can continue indefinitely. There is also a health component to sustainable products. Finally, many consumers are looking for products with less plastic packaging and more recyclable materials. 

How important is sustainability to consumers?

Our research shows that about a third of consumers (30%) are currently purchasing what they feel to be sustainable food products. More specifically, those with higher incomes and consumers that are already parents are statistically more likely to buy sustainable foods. We can see that the product areas in which consumers care most about sustainability are meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs. And we also see that women find sustainability more important than men, and that those without a college education are less worried about food sustainability. 

As important as sustainability is to consumers, research shows that factors such as quality, price, and ingredients have far more weight on consumer buying decisions. This means that food companies should avoid selling products entirely based on their sustainability. Before consumers even consider sustainability, the product must get those first factors right. 

Additionally, although many consumers state that they are willing to pay more for sustainable alternatives, the general perception is that the higher price should be no more than 20% of non-sustainable options. This limit is something to keep in mind when pricing green offerings. 

Who are “sustainable” consumers?

Generally, women are more likely to be committed to a sustainable lifestyle and were statistically more likely to have recently carried out actions such as recycling and using reusable bags. Furthermore, although older shoppers do not express as much concern for sustainability in their purchase decisions, they are more likely to be committed to a sustainable lifestyle that includes shopping locally, growing their own food, and eating out less. Millennials are middle-of-the-road, while Gen Z is the least engaged in these actions to increase their sustainability. Finally, higher-income groups and parents are more likely to lead a more “sustainable lifestyle” than other groups—though data shows that may not exactly track with their carbon footprint

Why consumers want to purchase sustainable foods

The key driving factor behind the increased demand for sustainable food products for consumers in the United States is that they are better for the environment. Concern over the health of the climate and broader sustainability issues has grown in recent years. Many people who previously were oblivious to these topics have now incorporated them into their daily lives. The second most-cited reason for purchasing sustainable foods is to improve the health of the consumer and their family. This affirms the previously stated health component of sustainable products. For many consumers, there is a strong sentiment that a product should not only be sustainably produced but should also be healthy to consume. 

There are specific barriers to purchasing sustainable foods for some consumers. The primary reason for consumers not to buy these kinds of products is that they do not think about sustainability in their day-to-day lives. The second reason is that sustainable products are too expensive (42%), and the third reason is that finding what products are genuinely sustainable and which aren't takes too much time (31%). This shows that there is an opportunity for greater education and awareness on the part of consumers. Food companies can take action to help consumers understand the importance of sustainability in their daily lives. 

Sustainable certifications and companies

What do consumers think of when they think of sustainable products? Primarily, well-known name brands like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Nature’s Path. Regarding certifications, women and parents with children tend to find certifications more appealing. Most consumers are familiar with USDA Organic and Non-GMO certifications. 

Generally, once consumers become aware of a certification and its purpose, they tend to factor that into their purchase decisions on products. This is especially the case for labels and certifications dealing with animal welfare. 

Key takeaways

One of the key takeaways from our research was that there is room to grow the niche sustainable foods market. The demographics passionate about sustainability include parents, younger generations, those with college educations, and higher-income households. These groups are passionate and growing and represent a new opportunity for food manufacturers. 

Although the data confirms that many shoppers feel strongly about sustainability, it also shows that brands must get the basics right first. Shoppers will not buy products that fail to meet their needs and preferences just because it is sustainable. It’s crucial to ensure that your products are high-quality and healthy for consumers. 

Finally, this research also suggests that a large number of people are unaware of the importance of sustainability. This means that there is a key opportunity for companies to educate consumers on the positive impacts of sustainability. Doing so, our research suggests, can improve consumer perceptions of your brand and increase sales.

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