The sustainability markers that are top of mind for grocery shoppers have shifted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and brands seeking to deepen their loyalty with sustainability-seeking consumers need to be mindful of what resonates most with shoppers today, industry analysts from IRI and FMI said this week.
"If we go back 18 months, how the consumer is viewing sustainability is completely changing," said Rick Stein, VP of fresh foods for FMI, in a fresh-trends discussion hosted by market researcher IRI. Part of that is a continuation of longer-term trends—growing interest in farming practices, for example.
But a big part of it, Stein said, stems from all of that time that consumers have spent at home in the past 16 months: Seeing every day how much their household throws away and how quickly their garbage and recycling bins fill has made consumers more waste-conscious, he said.
At the same time, many consumers have witnessed—or experienced themselves—the food insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic. The juxtaposition of throwing away food while food banks in their community experienced unprecedented demand has made an impact on consumers for whom buying fresh food isn't a struggle, he suggested. There was a growing realization, Stein said, that "we're wasting all this food, [and] there's also a climate impact with food waste."
As a result, "The conversation I hear the most about is packaging concerns and food waste," Stein said.
So what do consumers want? Options, for one—larger-volume items or reusable/refillable containers to cut down on the packaging waste of individual-serving containers, as well as products sized for smaller households (e.g., half loaves of bread). Consumers also appreciate guidance on packaging for freezing/storing—and then successfully thawing—food that can be kept.
There's an "opportunity to expand consumer education on how to store to extend shelf life," said IRI's Jonna Parker. The biggest eco-conscious buyers, Parker said, are more interested in packaging and recycled/upcycled/reusable messaging than in markers such as "fair trade" or "minimally processed."
"It's about permissibility," she said—and knowing that the product they're choosing can help them generate less waste gives eco-conscious consumers the permission to purchase with confidence.
With respect to the spectrum of sustainability-associated terms, different markers resonate with different demographic groups, IRI's Parker and Sally Lyons Wyatt noted. Overall, 21% of consumers say they go out of their way to make eco-friendly choices, according to a 2020 IRI survey, and 18% say they're willing to pay extra for eco-friendly food and beverages.
For Gen Z (born since 1997), organic is an especially significant sustainability marker: Forty-seven percent of Gen Z consumers associate "organic" with sustainability, vs. 37% of the overall population. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) give more weight to "ethically sourced" than other groups, with 37% of millennials saying this is a marker of sustainability vs. 28% of consumers overall.
The leading indicators of sustainability for all age groups are recycled/recyclable (67%), environmentally safe (58%), biodegradable (55%) and reusable packaging (54%).
And whereas markers such as organic, local, non-GMO and feed type (for meats) are now table stakes, according to IRI, for retailers looking to court eco-conscious buyers, emerging markers—grown on-site, fair-wage, small-batch, benefiting a community organization—can still be differentiators, Lyons Wyatt and Parker said.
"Recognize what benefits these consumers want," Lyons Wyatt said. Delivering meal-makers and occasion-based solutions that also align with consumers' desire to be more environmentally and socially responsible, she suggested, can generate lucrative loyalty from some of the biggest spenders in fresh.
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