Mainstream consumers are steadily adopting stronger environmental and sustainable ideals, which is affecting how they make purchase decisions. They are becoming less tolerant of chemicals in agriculture and in products they use. They are even taking small steps to integrate protection of planetary health into their daily lives, such as taking a bag to the grocery store and turning off lights. Consumers are also requiring more transparency of companies to understand what the food industry is doing to help the environment. They also examine the social responsibility of brands toward farmers and third-world countries. Shoppers have indicated they will communicate through their spending dollars.

It is no surprise that consumers now regularly question how and where ingredients are grown and how a product is processed and brought to market. In fact, consumers, especially younger consumers, are adopting more sustainable attitudes regarding their purchases. They are looking for options that take into consideration both personal and planetary health, including organic farming, fewer hormones and antibiotics, less animal cruelty, fair trade practices, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Further proof of this growing sustainable movement is the substantial growth in importance placed on ethical and sustainable food attributes.

According to NMI’s 2019 Sustainability Trends Database, several product attributes deemed “very important” to consumer food product purchase are seeing growth:

  • Vegetarian/vegan, +170 percent
  • Fair trade certified ingredients, +97 percent
  • Free-range/cage-free, +74 percent
  • From farms that practice sustainable agriculture, +59 percent
  • Grown without pesticides, +39 percent
  • Non-GMO, +32 percent

We have also witnessed an upsurge in the number of consumers experimenting with more global cuisines. This is driven by the desire for new taste experiences and the growing familiarity with world cultures through socially conscious global brands, and sometimes the fair trade movement.

Consumers are embracing emerging sustainable food production by embracing foods “grown on farms that practice sustainable agriculture,” and more than 4 in 10 consumers rate “grown without pesticides” as very important to their purchase decisions.

Consumers’ increasing desire to avoid toxins and negative food ingredients is also driving interest in “clean” foods. It is not surprising since 7 out of 10 consumers (69 percent) believe reducing toxins in their body is critical to staying healthy. Purchasing organic and natural food is a manifestation of this consumer movement toward less-adulterated, cleaner, and closer-to-nature options. In fact, consumer attitudes toward organic are becoming increasingly positive, with approximately half of consumers now feeling organic foods and beverages are healthier (52 percent), safer (50 percent), and more nutritious (45 percent) than non-organic foods. Younger consumers (iGen and millennials) show even higher alignment with organic and are significantly more likely to not only use organic foods and beverages, but are more likely to have increased usage over the past year, compared to older generations.

Buying local is another key strategy consumers are using to make more-sustainable food choices. Locally sourced foods have perceptions of sustainability due to less transport time, less energy use, support of local and smaller farms, and more-humane treatment of animals. In fact, 3 out of 5 consumers (61 percent) indicate “locally grown” is important to them when making purchase decisions.

Many of today’s home delivery meal services are filling consumers’ desire for healthier, convenient, more-sustainable, and organic food options. Companies such as Hello Fresh provide fresh, locally sourced, organic, and sustainable ingredients in their meal kits. Plated, another meal delivery service, provides farm-sourced and seasonal offerings, including sustainable seafood and antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. With a third of the population (35 percent) trying to reduce their meat consumption, companies like Veestro are meeting their need by providing 100 percent plant-based, fresh ingredients for cooking at home. Consumers want products and services that offer simple, convenient, and straightforward solutions which align with their growing level of eco-, health-, and world-consciousness. These home delivery services are just one example of how food companies are meeting the taste and varietal needs of an increasing sustainable consumer base.

Once a differentiating factor for food and beverage brands, sustainable, environmental, and socially responsible are becoming more “must have” rather than “nice to have.” Brands that consider consumer motivations regarding these attributes will find future opportunities across a wide range of food categories, for retail, restaurants, and even home delivery.