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77% of Americans Say Sustainability Factors Into Food-Purchasing Decisions

Image credit: Cone Communications

New research released Thursday reveals Americans are willing to sacrifice variety and dollars in order to eat more consciously. Although family satisfaction reigns supreme (97 percent), health and nutrition (93 percent) and sustainability (77 percent) are now also important factors when deciding which foods to buy, according to the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker.

A number of health and sustainability issues are top of mind for the food shoppers surveyed, including food safety (93 percent) and nutritional value (92 percent). But at least two-thirds of Americans say they prioritize a variety of other issues weigh into their food-shopping decisions, including:

  • locally produced (74 percent)
  • sustainable packaging (69 percent)
  • animal welfare (69 percent)
  • non-GMO (67 percent)
  • protects and renews natural resources (65 percent)

Consumers Willing to Pay More to Eat Local

Nearly nine-out-of-10 Americans (89 percent) say they consider where a product is produced when making food-purchasing decisions, and two-thirds (66 percent) would pay more for food that is produced close to home. Although locally sourced food provides environmental, economic and health benefits, respondents said supporting local businesses (64 percent) is the primary reason for buying local. Other motives include:

  • taste and quality of the product is better (39 percent)
  • standards for locally produced foods than other regions or countries are higher (31 percent)
  • products are healthier (28 percent)
  • it’s better for the environment when food doesn’t travel as far (26 percent)

Americans’ convictions are so strong in their commitment to purchase locally produced foods that nearly half (46 percent) would sacrifice variety to do so.

“As the local food movement goes mainstream, it’s not just about the ‘mom and pop shop’ or farm stand. Even large companies have a role to talk about where they source food and the respective impacts on local communities,” says Alison DaSilva, EVP of Cone Communications. “Using local as a broader value proposition helps companies of all sizes talk about the social and environmental benefits of responsible sourcing.”

Many Reasons for Seeking Sustainable Food Options

More than eight-in-10 Americans (83 percent) consider sustainability when buying food and would like to see more options available that protect the environment (81 percent). Their motivations span from the altruistic to the self-serving, including:

  • 43 percent of Americans want to do their part to protect and preserve the environment
  • 39 percent believes the quality/taste is better
  • 38 percent wants to show their support for companies who are doing the right thing
  • 27 percent believes the products are healthier

Consumers look to companies to help them understand the broader implications of their food purchasing decisions, with nearly three-quarters (74 percent) stating they want companies to do a better job explaining how their purchases impact the environment.

“Although consumers are shopping with an eye toward sustainability, they are equally motivated by personal needs and a desire to improve society,” says Liz Gorman, SVP of Sustainable Business Practices at Cone. “Messaging must be two-fold. Companies must clearly demonstrate the impact consumers’ purchases are having on the environment, while reinforcing health, taste and quality attributes.”

GMO Confusion Persists — Consumers Look to Companies for Info

Eighty-four percent of consumers want companies to disclose information and educate them on GMOs in products because more than half (55 percent) say they don’t know whether GMOs are good or bad for them. Despite this confusion, three-in-five Americans are on the lookout for non-GMO-labeled foods when shopping. Reasons include:

  • 39 percent believes non-GMO foods are healthier
  • 32 percent worries about the effects on the environment
  • 24 percent questions the ethics behind the use of GMOs

“The GMO debate is dominating media and social channels,” says Gorman. “Consumers are confused and the onus is on companies to help them understand GMOs and be transparent about if and how GMOs are used in the products they are buying.”

Friends, Family Guide Food-Purchase Decisions

It’s no surprise Americans are most influenced by those closest to them when it comes to food-purchasing decisions, with spouse or partner (45 percent), friends (27 percent) and kids (19 percent) topping the list. Yet, food companies and healthcare providers (16 percent) are close behind as the next most influential sources of information. Americans are not only choosing who they listen to but also when they access information, with 43 percent of consumers accessing information online throughout the day.

“Today’s food and beverage companies have an opportunity to connect with consumers on the issues they care about, with the people they trust, in the channels where they are,” DaSilva says. “The days of empty claims and blanketed approaches to marketing to consumers are over; consumers want to know their favorite food brands understand their unique needs and what matters most to them.”

Women, Millennials Take Stance on Food Issues

There’s no question women are the most thoughtful and empathetic consumers on a variety of health and sustainability issues, and although both men and women are shopping with sustainability and local in mind, women are more likely to do so for selfless reasons:

  • Women are more likely to consider sustainability because they want to do their part to protect the environment (50 percent vs. 36 percent of men), while men are more motivated by taste and quality (41 percent vs. 38 percent of women).
  • Women are more passionate about local food options. They are more likely to pay more (73 percent vs. 60 percent of men) and will sacrifice variety to eat local (52 percent vs. 38 percent of men).

Millennials, ages 18-24, have a somewhat different take on the most important health and sustainability food issues. Beyond food safety and nutrition, other priorities include:

  • 72 percent protect and renew natural resources (vs. 65 percent U.S. average)
  • 66 percent organic (vs. 52 percent U.S. average)
  • 66 percent supports a social issue and/or charity (vs. 49 percent U.S. average)
  • 61 percent locally produced (vs. 74 percent U.S. average)

“Grocery-shopping decisions no longer hinge on price and taste alone. Consumers worry about where their food is made, what’s in it and how it affects the environment,” says DaSilva. “The stakes are higher for companies to not only provide food options that meet consumers’ modern needs but communicate attributes in a clear and transparent way.”


Launched in 2006, Sustainable Brands has become a global learning, collaboration, and commerce community of forward-thinking business and brand strategy, marketing, innovation and sustainability professionals who are leading the way to a better future. We recognize that brands today have… [Read more about Sustainable Brands]


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