It is widely understood that the idea of sustainability—being environmentally friendly and not depleting natural resources—is growing among consumers in both their attitudes and actions. Making environmentally friendly choices spans purchase decisions including personal care, household items, and foods and beverages. Reflecting this consumer commitment, companies are investing in sustainability as an integral business focus. And the food and beverage industry is one key sector where sustainability issues will have unmistakable impact.

What are the most-important sustainability-related concerns for consumers in the area of food and beverage? And which sustainable product attributes are rapidly becoming more important?

Since 2002, NMI has conducted an annual LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) research study, which provides a wealth of data regarding consumer concerns and behaviors. In order to more fully understand this marketplace, NMI has developed a consumer segmentation of the general population into five distinct consumer segments: LOHAS, NATURALITES, DRIFTERS, CONVENTIONALS and UNCONCERNEDS.

22 percent of U.S. adults (54 million people) are classified as LOHAS consumers. They hold the strongest attitudes regarding personal and planetary health, which are widely reflected in their behaviors. They are the heaviest users of healthy and “green” products and exert strong influence over others. LOHAS is a critical target for companies when marketing healthy, environmentally friendly, socially responsible products.

In general, sustainability as it relates to foods and beverages pertains to a desire to protect personal health, environmental health and animal welfare. We have seen a steady increase in the level of consumer interest in this area.

Over 40 percent of shoppers are interested in purchasing environmentally friendly foods and beverages, up from 36 percent in 2012. This is reflected in the increasing numbers of consumers who have purchased organic products within the past year (72 percent, up from 60 percent in 2007). Not surprisingly, LOHAS consumers’ purchase commitment is significantly greater than that of the general population, reinforcing their desire for both a healthy body and healthy environment.

Over half of the general population reports that it is important for their store to carry food grown on sustainable farms, up from 46 percent six years ago, and 40 percent indicate they care about sustainable agriculture, an attitude showing 26 percent growth since 2006. So while these concerns are driven by LOHAS consumers, they are clearly mainstreaming among the general population.

Not surprisingly, taste, value and nutrition remain the most-important attributes for food and beverage purchases, with “greener” attributes falling into a second tier of drivers. However, the attributes which show the most growth are those that are environmentally friendly. Not only are attributes such as organic, Fair Trade–certified and “no-negatives” growing in importance, but so too are several related to packaging materials. Remember that there are multiple phases of a snack or bakery product’s life cycle, and each can impact consumers: pre (growing/processing), during (consumption) and post (disposal).

NMI’s Sustainability Consumer Trends Database released a chart illustrating consumer attributes deemed important to food and beverage purchase decisions. “From farms that practice sustainable agriculture” is “very important” to 30 percent of consumers, up over 10 percent from 2012–2016, and 27 percent cited “organically grown,” up over 15 percent.

There is not only a desire for foods that are healthy to eat, but also for those grown, produced and manufactured in a manner that is healthy and safe for the environment, people and animals. And while all these choices are important from a social and ethical perspective, they can also have the added benefit of being good for business. Nearly 40 percent of general consumers are willing to pay a 10 percent premium for foods and beverages that are certified as either organic or are environmentally friendly; LOHAS consumers are nearly twice as likely to do so.

In the end, most consumers realize that a healthy body and a healthy environment go hand-in-hand.