Food for thought: Insights on sustainability

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Posted Jun 07, 2023
Eliza Jacobs

We recently hosted an insightful webinar on sustainability in the food industry called “Food for thought.” Joining us were two experts: Cassandra Snelling, Marketing Manager for Global Sustainability at Sonoco, and Stephanie Vance, aytm’s VP of Research and Client Enablement. The webinar centered around key findings from a recent research study we ran on on sustainably-minded consumers, and we had a lively discussion about how brands can innovate to meet the needs of this growing market.

Let’s meet our experts

Our speakers include Eliza Jacobs, Cassandra Snelling, and Stephanie Vance

Innovating for (and communicating to) the sustainably-minded consumer

Background: The importance of sustainability 

Our planet has faced substantial environmental damage over the past century and a half due to human activity like pollution, waste, and overuse of natural resources. However, there is hope that by changing how we produce and consume goods, we can achieve true sustainability—balancing the triple bottom line: profit, the planet, and people. And we want to focus on the people part with this study—namely the consumers.

Context: The focus on food

Agriculture and the food industry significantly contribute to pollution, climate change, and other environmental issues. Food also plays a central role in our lives, both biologically and culturally. We aimed to explore consumer sentiment about sustainability specifically related to food. Furthermore, this study has wider implications, as anything that can apply to food, can also, to some extent, be applied to the products we put in, on, or around our body. 

Methodology: Details of this study

We surveyed over 1,000 U.S. consumers for 12 minutes about their sustainability attitudes and behaviors regarding food. Respondents were aged 18+ and involved in household grocery shopping. Our study sought to uncover:

  • How consumers think about sustainability and why it matters to them
  • What drives consumers to buy sustainable food products and engage in related activities
  • Consumer segments based on sustainability motivations and behaviors
  • Perceptions of common eco-labels and brand sustainability initiatives
  • Actionable insights for brands to innovate and optimize their messaging

How consumers think about sustainability

Consumers define sustainability differently

So how do consumers define sustainable food? Results from our study show that consumers’ definitions focus primarily on environmental impact and responsible production. They see sustainability as food produced in an eco-friendly manner that protects the planet, as well as in a way that’s responsibly sourced to endure over time. They also see it as being natural, healthy, and safe. And finally, they see packaging as a salient indicator of sustainability. 

Cassandra noted how if we search sustainability, over 200 definitions pop up, because it’s a brought concept that has become hard to truly understand. She went on to explain how even some of the most sustainable materials still elicit guilt from consumers; and how educating them on those definitions can help bring about a deeper awareness by showing how packaging is sourced and how easily it can be recycled. She explained how the more forthcoming  brands are by sharing their practices,  the more it helps consumers make sustainable choices daily. “There are definitely things we can do to make it easier for consumers to do their part and feel good about doing it,” she said, “with so much information out there today, transparency is key.”

Sustainability in daily life varies

Results from the study also emphasize that the importance of sustainability in daily life varies widely. Just over half of consumers say living sustainably is important—higher among  parents and educated consumers. However, boomers are less likely to consider the environmental and social impact of their food choices or pay more for sustainable products. These life stage markers seem to be real indicators of interest in sustainability, an interest that seems to be a privilege—meaning it is  tied to higher awareness, higher income, and higher education. 

Cassandra noted how these findings align with their approach at Sonoco. “When we develop packaging, we look at the full lifecycle and then we can provide that information to our customers,” she said. “I think that where the unique opportunity lies is in that accessibility and education piece.” She goes on to explain how the more brands share about practices and aims, the more it helps consumers make sustainable choices daily. “There are definitely things we can do to make it easier for consumers to do their part and feel good about doing it,” she said, “with so much information out there today, transparency is key.”

Actions taken to lead a sustainable life. The two leading results are to reduce food waste at home and recycle as much as possible (50% of respondents report doing each of these)

Sustainable food purchase

Many behaviors are related to food purchase

Consumers’ sustainable food behaviors start with recycling and reducing waste. These actions are more common among women, parents, and higher-income households. But interestingly there appears to be a generational gap, with Gen Z showing the lowest engagement and Boomers showing the highest engagement for these types of behaviors. Indeed, the recycling campaign (“reduce, reuse, recycle”)  has been going on since the 1970s, and this kind of marketing message seems to have had a cumulative impact over time on older generations. 

Priority of sustainability in food purchase

Results show that for most, sustainability comes after things like quality, price, ingredients, nutrition, and brand when choosing food. And in our discussion, Stephanie emphasizes “the big takeaway for me here is that sustainability is not an “instead of” initiative, it has to be an “in addition to” initiative.” Essentially, consumers are not going to trade quality for a sustainably-produced item. 

And while protecting the environment remains the top motivator for purchasing sustainable food, we can see that a lack of awareness, lower priority, and higher cost seem to be the biggest barriers. Indeed, it is hard for consumers to figure out what is sustainable and what is not. “I see nothing but opportunity in this area,” Cassandra  said reflecting on these findings, “to me the most exciting area of opportunity is in the barrier section: those who don’t trust or don’t understand the claims of sustainability. It goes back to that transparency piece that’s so important.”  

Price expectations, motivations, and barriers

Our study tells us that on average, people expect sustainable food to cost 13-15% more, with most respondents expecting to pay within 20% of non-sustainable options. Some sustainability actions and price willingness increase with income and education. When it comes to cost, Cassandra agreed, “cost is tough, but value-added options help.” She explained how sustainable packaging  has the ability to reduce waste by increasing shelf life—so it may cost 25% more, but lasts 50% longer. 

Price perceptions for sustainable foods vs. non-sustainable foods

This comes back to transparency and communication. “That’s where product claims and packaging claims can really come into play and benefit brands here.” Cassandra continued: “Something that we found in our research with aytm is that consumers want information … If we put it on the package and make it accessible, it will help address barriers” …  “In doing that, you’re taking a portion of those who don't think about sustainability all the time and bringing them into that world.”

Consumer Segmentation

Given how the market is bifurcated, our study sought to identify key consumer segments based on sustainability motivations and barriers. 

A consumer segmentation highlighting groups such as sustainability enthusiasts (14%), healthy home advocates (8%), waste reduction champions (8%), unconcerned consumers (22%), sustainability skeptics (17%), and budget constrained (28%)


Sustainability Enthusiasts (14%) have a holistic view of sustainability and are the least price-sensitive. They skew female and tend to live in the Western region of the United States.  Healthy Home Advocates (8%) focus on personal health and family, and skew female with young children. Waste Reduction Champions (8%) are environmentally motivated, focused on recycling and waste reduction. They skew male and live in the Western region of the U.S.


Unconcerned Consumers (22%) lack awareness of sustainability and see it as a low priority. They skew older with no children. Educating them on relevance and importance is key. Sustainability Skeptics (17%) are suspicious of “greenwashing” but support recycling and waste reduction. Building trust through transparency and honest communication is critical to motivating this segment. Budget Constrained (28%) care about sustainability but are price-sensitive. Focus on lower-cost product options and programs.

The answer is transparency and education

When asked which segments stood out to her the most, Cassandra directed our attention to the Sustainability Skeptics and Unconcerned Consumers—pointing out how they represent the biggest opportunity. “This is a huge portion of the barriers. Transparency is key, but we can even take that a step further.” To counter skepticism, she says “Show, don’t just tell. Show how products are made and what happens when you recycle packaging.” Educate these segments and build awareness by showcasing how product benefits and sustainable impacts can help.

We can also agree that continuous learning and experiencing a brand’s sustainability journey leads consumers to strengthen habits and commitments over time—but be able to back your claims. “Follow standards and be data-driven,” Cassandra cautioned. “We’ve had so much greenwashing, historically,” she added, explaining that when it comes to building credibility, brands must substantiate all claims by following guidelines and providing evidence.

Certifications and brand initiatives

Nobody seems to truly “own” this space

Back to our study, we found that consumers struggle to name sustainable food brands—mostly citing “none” when asked which ones come to mind first. Other responses were split between retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and a few packaged goods brands. Stephanie pointed out that nobody seems to own this space, highlighting an opportunity for brands to lead in sustainability through education and credible brand stories.

Certification awareness still plays a role

While most recognize USDA Organic and Non-GMO certifications, our study found that knowledge of others is limited. But of those recognized, familiarity is higher among younger, educated consumers and parents—increasing the importance certifications play in purchase decisions, especially for animal welfare labels.

Some sustainability initiatives resonate more than others

Similarly, sustainability initiatives focused on animal welfare, organic farming and production, and eco-friendly packaging have the broadest appeal, while sustainable fuel and offsets resonate less. According to the results Stehpanie shared, appeal is higher among women, younger generations, parents, and higher income consumers (eco-packaging) and lower income (zero waste). These initiatives also show the most potential to command price premiums, indicating opportunity.

Education is important when it comes to certifications 

When it comes to importance, animal welfare and organic certifications seem to offer competitive advantage. Sustainability-focused brands sharing credible stories of impact stand to earn loyal advocates and build reputation. The opportunity for brands to lead in sustainability and meet demand has never been greater, but transparency and education are needed for consumers to partake.

Cassandra explains how she thinks brands can better educate and communicate with their consumers about sustainability across the product lifecycle: “Everyone can start with a lifecycle assessment.” Lifecycle assessments help brands communicate sustainability authentically. “There are so many opportunities—I think picking the ones that make sense for your product line and telling that story to help the consumers understand is huge.” 

Furthermore, explaining the use of post-consumer recycled content shows circularity and impact.  Cassandra noted, “I also think there’s an opportunity—especially within compostable and recyclable packaging—to be very detailed.” Again, education is key here. Helping consumers navigate local recycling options addresses variability and builds trust, and connecting with consumers and making recycling their package easier gives purpose.

Willingness to pay for sustainability initiatives

Overall, certifications and brand initiatives are most compelling when consumers understand them and see the outcomes clearly. This suggests that the role of brands is to facilitate this understanding and realize a shared vision of progress. When viewed in the context of revenue potential, these broadly appealing initiatives have the most potential to command higher pricing:

  • Animal welfare initiatives
  • Use of organic (natural) fertilizers, pesticides
  • Use of sustainable farming methods
  • Water conservation programs
  • Eco-friendly packaging (compostable, recycled)

Key takeaways and final thoughts 

In the end, to consumers, sustainability means protecting the environment. They care about sustainable food, but other factors drive their choices. Generational and life stage differences in sustainability are complex and the market is not monolithic; consumers have diverse motivations and barriers. Nonetheless,  an opportunity exists for brands to lead in sustainability. Packaging signals sustainability as appealing, noticeable and less costly than other initiatives.

Start with packaging

If you're new to sustainability, our study’s results suggest starting with packaging—it’s appealing and less costly than other initiatives. Don’t sacrifice key purchase factors like quality, ingredients or nutrition to produce sustainably. Use lesser-known certifications judiciously; educate on their purpose/value or they won’t motivate.

Communicate sustainability initiatives aligned with consumer motivations. Identify terms resonating with and expanding Boomers' behavioral focus on sustainability; build trust. Reach Skeptics through trust-building, Budget Constrained through lower-cost options/communication, Unconcerned through quality perceptions. Educate on certifications and brand efforts. Share stories demonstrating real impact.

“There are important conversations brands need to had about how to marry a brand’s desire." Cassandra says. "For example, going back to a quality side, black plastics signal luxury but aren’t recycled well.” She suggests that brands have conversations with developers about using the right materials and educating consumers on choices.

Collaboration is also key

Cassandra also shared how collaboration enables sustainable solutions: “The more things look natural, the easier they are to recycle. But get internal alignment; too much info could reveal pricing. Sustainability matters to all—so get everyone on the same page!” She also stresses the importance of getting internal alignment on sustainability. “Everyone has a big role to play in sustainability,”  she added, “and working with vendors, providers, and suppliers can help you transform your initiatives even further.”

Remain data-driven in your initiatives

The biggest opportunities, according to Cassandra, are “making sure that we’re validating things with data … Data speaks volumes, and some of the best practices are using minimum statements.” Stephanie explains how it’s going to depend on the objectives, but “I will suggest that any industry that is really seeking to dip their toes into this topic in a more robust way to consider an A&U or an attitudes and usage study.” These  A&U studies can help brands understand how consumers view sustainability. 

Feel like you were there?

Sure, this was a long recap, but there’s so much more to this discussion. And though we tried to cover as much as we could in this post, you really had to be there. Wait! Well, would you look at that? Seems like we recorded the whole thing—just for you! Might as well go ahead and check it out while you’re here, right?

Watch the entire presentation now on-demand

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