If you’re not showing off your eco-friendly side, you may be losing customers. EcoFocus Worldwide’s 2015 EcoFocus Trend Study—conducted annually since 2010, and measures the wellness and sustainability trends impacting the food and beverage industry—reports grocery shoppers are becoming increasingly concerned about the ingredients in their favorite foods. Nearly half of shoppers have avoided purchasing products from companies that don’t follow socially or environmentally responsible practices.
An example of the impact of responsibly sourced and natural ingredients is the interest in Malaysian sustainable palm oil. Palm oil is the world’s first sustainably produced edible oil, and Malaysia is the recognized leader in its responsible production. So if acquiring more green shoppers is on your 2016 agenda, EcoFocus’ results can help guide your actions.
The 2015 study showed a significant increase in consumer interest in sustainable ingredients. In 2015, 74 percent of grocery shoppers between 18 and 65 years of age report a company’s commitment to using certified-sustainable ingredients is extremely or very influential to their purchase decisions. This is up 6 percent from the previous year.
To attract and retain these green shoppers, EcoFocus Worldwide has the following recommendations for food and beverage manufacturers:
- Clearly identify your eco-friendliness. Consumers want to do business with companies that share their values, so don’t limit this information to your website. Make an effort to understand your target audience and which messages will resonate with them. Then share your story on your packaging. One organic dairy company does an excellent job of this by dedicating an entire panel of its milk carton to its sustainability and health story. Today’s consumers want more than bullet points or graphics squeezed onto a label. Third-party certifications are also worth the investment because they are becoming more influential to shoppers. Just be selective; choose those that make sense for your product and story. And be careful not to inundate people with multiple certifications on the label.
- Use natural and non-GMO ingredients. Consumers clearly want these products, with 52 percent saying non-GMO verified is extremely or very important. In fact, non-GMO is becoming very mainstream. Being non-GMO verified is even helping certified-organic labels these days, and that influence is rising quickly. That’s a huge advantage for such products as Malaysian-certified sustainable palm oil, which is non-GMO, unlike more common seed oils such as corn and canola.
- Provide information on ingredient origin. More than half of shoppers say it is important to buy products from responsible countries. Consumers are also wary of major institutions and big industry—you must earn their trust. A trusted gatekeeper—whether that’s a retailer, a certification organization or an environmentally responsible government—are all elements that can encourage consumers to trust your brand. Keep in mind, too, that Americans don’t know geography; they don’t know the difference between Malaysia and Indonesia, for example. It’s worth it for companies to invest in educating consumers, but it’s got to be simple. “If I see X on the label, then I know it’s Z." We’ve seen this done effectively in the coffee industry. Some companies are putting maps on their packaging to show where their coffee beans are grown. Being transparent earns trust.
- Share your corporate eco-commitments. Consumers are influenced by eco-certifications. Create opportunities to communicate the sustainability of your products’ ingredients. Consumers want to make greener, healthier choices, but they either don’t want to do the work or the discovery process is beyond their capability; they are looking for manufacturers and retailers to the homework for them. Often, the greener choice is buried on a dusty shelf rather than being celebrated. Yet, when stores help consumers make healthier choices, their own credentials rise. Think about how you are actively helping consumers be more eco-friendly.
- Fulfill shoppers’ demand for better nutrition. Exactly what that means depends on your target audience. Those who have chronic health issues may be more open to functional foods. Their desire may be satisfied, for example, by using Malaysian sustainable palm oil. The naturally trans fat-free oil is rich in vitamin E tocotrienols and has no adverse impact on blood cholesterol levels. Relatively healthy people, on the other hand, might be more focused on natural, whole foods. The over-arching trend is that consumers are looking for foods that contain fewer chemicals and chemical transformations of ingredients. The idea that fats are bad for you is also over. Consumers are re-thinking fats in the wake of positive health news about saturated fats, tocotrienols and omega-3 fatty acids. People are also starting to consider sustainability. That means we may also see a lot more focus on tree products such as tree oils, including palm, olive, almond and coconut.
- Recognize that shoppers are driving change. Shoppers’ demand for natural, sustainable and healthful products will continue to change food industry practices. Companies are responding to consumer pressure. For example, artificial colors are being removed from popular products. One manufacturer changed its formula when it was revealed that it was using GMO soy in its cereal. In many cases, companies aren’t waiting for regulatory deadlines to make changes; they are taking action because of what consumers are demanding now.
The intersection of personal health and eco-friendly choices will continue to grow stronger. More consideration will be given not just to the ingredients, but to where those ingredients come from and how they get there. Consumers will invest in these products, not so much because they want to save polar bears or rainforests, but because they want to protect their children’s health and the health of their grandchildren.
We’ve already started to see this mainstream shift in the soft-drink industry, with the phasing out of high fructose corn sugar. Baked goods are undergoing a similar transformation; and we’re seeing the protein category re-shaped, with phrases such as hormone-free, antibiotic-free and free-range becoming much more common.
It would benefit manufacturers to remove the hurdles to what consumers see as desirable behavior. If you can satisfy their need for affordability, accessibility and effectiveness, they will gravitate toward healthier, eco-friendly options.
While there will always be a segment of consumers who are willing to pay whatever it takes to support companies that share their eco-friendly values, most consumers have pretty tight budgets. They will pay more for items that they’ve always been willing to pay more for—such as things that add value, convenience, taste or performance—but they aren’t going to pay more just because something saves a tree on the other side of the planet.
There’s also a strong disconnect when recycled goods cost more than virgin goods. In their minds, it should be the other way around. If you are promoting how much you saved on water and fuel to produce recycled products, why did your prices go up? Sustainable choices should be about saving: saving natural resources, saving wildlife and saving money.
To today’s consumers, buying green is about conservation, not extravagance.
Linda Gilbert is founder/ former president of HealthFocus International and founder/current CEO for EcoFocus Worldwide LLC. Linda has more than 30 years of experience as a market development and strategy consultant linking consumer attitudes and nutrition awareness with product benefits to successfully meet the toughest brand and growth challenges for multinational B2B and B2C companies. She is a sought-after speaker and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Advertising Age, American Demographics, The Futurist, Food Processing Magazine and other venues.