Steve French

Many companies are talking about their “sustainability” efforts, referring to a whole host of initiatives related to production methods, corporate accountability, raw material sourcing, environmental initiatives, and social responsibility. For example:
In December 2003, Unilever published its Fish Sustainability Initiative report, which announced plans to harvest most of its fish from sustainable sources by 2005.

Nestlé, Danone, and Unilever have recently founded the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative to promote sustainable agriculture in a comprehensive way.

Kraft Foods has recently committed to sustainable coffee by funding technical assistance and training to improve living and working conditions on coffee farms, purchasing certified sustainable coffee, and stimulating consumer demand through the introduction of 100% certified products in Western Europe and the United States.

These are some of the world’s largest food and beverage manufacturers. Are their actions related to sustainability a result of consumer interest, public relations, corporate responsibility, true environmental concern, or external demands? Perhaps more important, what exactly does sustainability mean to the food industry, and how best should it manifest itself?

The Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) asked questions such as these in a recent consumer survey. The results indicate that sustainability and other related platforms are indeed issues that consumers care about. For example, 54% of the U.S. general public agreed that “they prefer to purchase products that are manufactured in a sustainable manner,” and 49% agreed that they “will choose products from sustainable sources over other conventional products.” Therefore, the concept of sustainability appeals to roughly half of the U.S. population. It is clear, however, that identifying and targeting “sustainability-interested” consumers is vital to maximizing any sustainability efforts.

The consumer-targeting issue again becomes important when exploring what sustainability means, as there exist a plethora of definitions inherent in the term itself. Based on NMI’s consumer research, about half of American adults think that sustainability has to do with balancing profits with concern for the environment, using environmentally responsible material to make their products, or making their products in an environmentally responsible way. The other half of the population either have not heard of the term, don’t know what it means, or think it is an empty marketing activity that has no real meaning. Therefore, this fundamental insight must be taken into account when communicating sustainability.

Despite not having a clear understanding of the word itself, specific sustainability-related concepts are important to consumers. For example, when asked about the importance of foods/beverages “from farms that practice sustainable agriculture,” 63% of consumers said it’s “very” or “somewhat” important. Similarly, 58% of consumers said that “USDA Certified Organic” is important in their food and beverage purchases, and 46% said that “Fair Trade Certified Ingredients” are important. So, we can see that sustainability can over a wide range of topics. Based on these observations, consumer interest is, at times, higher with specific attributes/benefits than with the notion of sustainability in general. In many cases, these importance levels do translate into purchase behavior—consumer usage of organic and fair trade–certified foods and beverages are up considerably compared to a year ago.

This shows that for food and beverage manufacturers, sustainability is clearly an issue worth paying attention to. So manufacturers who are early adopters of these types of platforms will have a competitive advantage relative to their peers. Beyond consumer interest and demand, corporate sustainability efforts can also lay the foundation for excellent corporate initiatives, especially within the context of today’s corporate scandals.

When developing (or expanding) corporate sustainability platforms, manufacturers should be conscious of several considerations. Because of its vagueness and multiple definitions, when “sustainability” is used in marketing communications, it is important to both explain the specifics of the initiative and to relate the activity back to the company or brand. The Fish Sustainability Initiative, for example, is a great fit with Unilever because the company is such a large processor of fish and consequently has a big impact on fish stocks. Similarly, Starbucks’ sustainability efforts—such as using fair trade–certified coffee and composting coffee grounds—are perfectly aligned with its business practices and their environmental and social impacts. Sustainability initiatives that are too vague in nature, lack consumer benefits, or are too far removed from consumers will not have any relevance. At that point, the programs are not likely to change consumer behavior and may risk drawing more negative publicity than generating consumer interest.

Designed, developed, and executed appropriately, products positioned in a “sustainable” way stand to appeal to consumers, provide a point of differentiation from competitors, and provide a perfect platform for a range of positive public relations activities. Just think about how “sustainability” can be redefined for the health of the planet and future generations, while providing returns for stakeholders.

by Steve French is Managing Partner, The Natural Marketing Institute, 272 Ruth Rd., Harleysville, PA 19438,

In This Article

  1. Sustainability