It’s Not Just Natural and Organic: Consumers’ Perceptions of Sustainability are Evolving — Need to Educate Consumers About Real Trade-offs In Sustainability

It’s Not Just Natural and Organic: Consumers’ Perceptions of Sustainability are Evolving

By Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh Foods, FMI—The Food Industry Association

September 2021 – “Sustainability” is one of those big terms with a lot of weight behind it. Clearly, we know that those in the food chain are prioritizing sustainability, including consumers and those who produce and sell consumable goods.

A recent study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reveals a 71% increase over the past five years in online searches for sustainable goods on a global basis. WWF also reports that the number of companies in the food, cosmetic and natural pharmaceutical industries committed to sourcing practices that protect biodiversity climbed by 45% from 2016 to 2020.

In its research, the Chicago-based market research firm IRI found that shoppers who say they will make trade-offs that favor the environment represented 27% of fresh food spending in the first quarter of 2021. Moreover, they spent 30% more than other shoppers on fresh foods.

In the world of fresh produce, sustainability has long been a focus, starting with the basic tenets of caring for the earth as stewards and continuing with the production of organic and natural fruits and vegetables by some growers.

Like so many things in our industries, though, the definition of sustainability is widening. Consumers concerned about the health of the planet and their own personal health are seeking out more specific information on how products are grown, processed, packaged and made available to them.

We know that proximity is important to produce-buying consumers who often associate locally-grown items with sustainability. FMI’s 2021 Power of Produce report found that more than half of shoppers are calling for a greater local offering in the product department. ‘Local,’ for today’s shoppers, includes fruits and vegetables grown by state and radius and also produced by country and family farms.

For some consumers, local is really, really local. IRI’s recent research indicates that more consumers are curious about, and increasingly seeking, produce grown in a nearby vertical farming operations or even onsite in a greenhouse or rooftop garden at a store or restaurant.

Packaging is another important and growing part of the sustainability equation for today’s shoppers. According to the latest Power of Produce, consumer interest is almost evenly split between reusable produce bags (27%), compostable produce bags (25%) and bringing one’s own reusable bag (28 percent). Younger generations are particularly keen on more sustainable packaging, with 77% of Gen Z shoppers looking to switch to more reusable packaging for produce, compared to 28% of Baby Boomers.

If package waste is part of the sustainability movement, so is food waste. The goal of slashing food waste continues to gain traction, as many organizations are working toward the goal set by the U.S. government to halve food waste by 2030. To get there – and to make an impactful dent in all of that waste – those of us in the food industry will collaborate in ways that are both creative and practical. I suspect we will see more and more technology and consumer engagement innovation in this space in 2022.

In addition, the definition of sustainability is broadening to include the human element. The push for fair wages around the world is now a part of many companies’ ESG (environmental, social, governance) plans. One can expect that this aspect of workforce sustainability will continue to garner interest and action in the coming months and years.

While I’m just scratching the surface here, the takeaway is that different facets of sustainability are the new table stakes, as we work to put fresh foods on tables around the country and world.

To learn more about the Power of Produce 2021 report and other category insights, visit              pb

Rick Stein is vice president, fresh foods, for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Follow him @Ricks_FreshFood. Visit,

Need to Educate Consumers About Real Trade-offs In Sustainability

By Jim Prevor

Consumers will say they are opposed to food waste, but if you asked them if we should spend more in fuel, labor, boxes, etc., to prevent food waste, they are unlikely to urge such expenditures

There is a great risk in assuming that what consumers say in a survey is actually what they want. Not, of course, being experts in the produce industry, consumers taking surveys will make assumptions that are often not true. For example, consumers consistently say they want more local produce in surveys. Yet, when you dig into this and find out why consumers say this, or what they expect the consequences of this to be, it is often not as clear what consumers want.

There is no question that surveys consistently show a desire for more local produce. Other research, though, indicates that consumers expect that local produce will be less expensive. This assumption is understandable, as consumers probably assume that there will be big savings on trucking, so the local produce should be cheaper.

The reality is that things are often complicated. A big Salinas-based shipper once shared some data with me. The company happened to have an investment in a Midwest greenhouse. In theory, the greenhouse was well-positioned to supply the South, Midwest and Northeast at lower freight rates. The reality, though, was that the greenhouse relied on less-than-trailorload shipments of specialty product, and the freight was generally quite high. It actually was cheaper to ship straight trailer loads of the greenhouse product back to Salinas, unload it and then include a pallet or two of the specialty product on the full trailers heading out from Salinas filled with iceberg and romaine.

If consumers knew this, what would they say? Would they say they want to pay more for the produce and would prefer it be shipped on the more expensive less-than-trailerload option? We don’t have much evidence for that, but we do know that this is not the question they are typically asked.

When talking to consumers, we have to be very careful about the words we use. The word “waste” for example is always bad. Who could ever say they wanted food to be wasted? But the reality, unknown to consumers, is that the only reason food is wasted, typically, is because it would waste a lot of other scarce resources — fuel, labor, etc. — to reduce the waste.

My family once had a production deal down in Puerto Rico that was mostly designed to grow honeydew melons, but we also had tomatoes and peppers, etc. Most years we did two pickings. In other words, we went through the field twice during the season to harvest the peppers. The peppers that were too small for harvesting were left on the plant and ultimately would be disced under. One year though, there had been a major freeze in the southern states, and there was a big shortage of peppers. So we did several additional pickings and picked peppers that were normally too small to sell at a profit. We were selling those tiny bell peppers on the Hunts Point Market for big bucks.

Normally, though, a consumer would see it as food waste, because the cost of harvesting those peppers, packing those peppers, trucking them to the port, shipping those peppers to America, then trucking them to Hunts Point, would have been much more than we could sell the peppers for — so we would just leave them in the field.

Sure consumers will say they are opposed to food waste, but if you asked them if we should should spend more in fuel, labor, boxes, etc… if consumers understood the trade-offs, they are unlikely to urge such expenditures. There is zero evidence that consumers would want to pay extra for these peppers to avoid them being left in the field.

Another issue is whether things assumed to be sustainable actually are. For example, FMI’s study explains that 28% of consumers claim they want to bring to the store their own reusable produce bags. There is some question as to whether the consumers who say this actually mean it, or whether they are just saying the politically correct thing. After all, pre-pandemic, most stores allowed for consumers to bring and use reusable produce bags. Yet there is no indication that 28% of consumers, or anything close, were doing so.

Even strictly from a sustainability perspective, this may be for the best. Studies have found E. coli, salmonella, fecal coliform and other forms of harmful bacteria in reusable bags. It is not a big deal. It just means that the bags should be washed between use. Then the sustainability issue becomes more complicated — water pollution, soap use, energy use, all these things now have to be factored in to the reusable bag.

It is not at all obvious this is more sustainable than single-use paper or plastic bags.

Things become trendy, and the industry will probably do many things to please consumers. After all, we have to meet consumer demand. Yet ill-informed consumers may urge activities that don’t actually help the planet. Perhaps the responsible thing is to act to educate consumers so they are more likely to demand products and services in a way that actually makes the world a better place.              pb