Sharing The Value Chain

This year’s PMA Fresh Summit expo halls will be chock full of industry efforts to better connect with consumers, from more environmentally friendly production practices to easy-serve and recyclable packaging, to licensing popular characters to engage children in healthful eating. But perhaps one of the most influential actions a company can take involves not the face of a cartoon character but the face of the people behind the produce, according to PMA’s latest consumer survey of consumer attitudes about social responsibility.

We learned loud and clear from a telephone survey of 1,000 key consumers at the end of July that the social responsibility of companies growing and selling produce is highly important to consumers when making produce purchase decisions — in fact, 55 percent place the highest degree of importance on this factor (with a mean score of 4.1 out of 5).

Not surprisingly, however, respondents diverged on how they define social responsibility. They were read a list of issues related to social responsibility in growing and selling fresh produce and asked to rank their top three issues. Organics tops the list for 13 percent of respondents, while the distance from farm to store and fair living wages each rate next to 11 percent. Global warming garners 8 percent and recycled and recyclable packaging earn 8 and 7 percent respectively — and when combined at 15 percent, packaging rates higher than any other issue. (Meanwhile, 9 percent of consumers reveal they don’t know what their most important social responsibility issue is — again highlighting that this social trend is still in its formative stages in the minds of many customers.)

This research tells us consumers look to their produce suppliers to help them be more socially responsible — and this presents us with the opportunity to build a deeper relationship with them. Yet, in working to make the produce supply chain more efficient over the years, it looks as if we have missed this opportunity; consumers now view themselves as more socially responsible than they view business, including the produce industry.

About one-third (33 percent) of surveyed consumers label themselves as extremely socially responsible, another 32 percent as at least somewhat socially responsible. Meanwhile, only 24 percent assign the same tags to business in general; the produce industry is better perceived, with 33 percent rating us as being either somewhat or extremely socially responsible. Clearly, for a produce industry to which sustainability is central to our very being, we have room for improvement.

What can we do about it? Consumers draw conclusions of social responsibility from the face a company reveals. To them, produce isn’t about building a better supply chain; it’s about building a better value chain. In focusing the past few decades on making our supply chain more efficient, we lost a link to our end customer. We must now get back to the basics — we must devolve to evolve to the next level of customer relations.

It shouldn’t be hard for us; sustainability is at the very heart of our farming traditions. We need to share the values inherent in our value chain by putting a face with the food our customers eat and touting our already socially responsible activities. And where we find ourselves lacking, we need to consider a change.

First, look in the mirror and inventory the sustainable steps you’re already taking. Share how your organization takes responsibility for the impact of its activities on customers, employees, shareholders, communities and the environment — whether paying your workers a fair wage so their children can go to college with yours or analyze your packaging to maximize product protection while minimizing environmental impact. Then, maximize your communication opportunities through that packaging, your Web sites, and other means to share your company’s story. Place a friendly company face on packaging; post family recipes online. Reveal the human side of your business, and make your customers a part of that experience. Social responsibility is all about connecting, less about selling. Yet if positioned honestly and authentically, social responsibility speaks directly to consumers’ values and can earn unwavering customer loyalty in the process.

As I walk the floor of Fresh Summit in Houston, the heart, and soul of our industry will come alive in the new and familiar faces I see all around me; it always does. As growers and suppliers of the most healthful and delicious foods available, we know social responsibility is embedded in our work — in sound growing and production practices, consumption and nutrition, packaging and transportation, and food safety and security. Doing an even better job of revealing our industry’s heart and soul may well be the key to our success for decades to come.

Let me add a special footnote for those readers of Produce Business who are in Houston and reading this article: I hope you’ll consider attending Jim Prevor’s presentation on new research just conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom during the workshop entitled What Do Consumers Really Think About Corporate Social Responsibility?

I know Jim will have a lot to add to the understanding of a consumer trend that is still in its formative stages. Hosting this important workshop is just one way in which PMA is helping develop our collective understanding of a social trend growing stronger every day.