Decoding sustainability claims: How much do consumers care about climate change and how is it influencing their purchase decisions?

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	Khosrork
Source: Getty/ Khosrork

Related tags Sustainability Packaging Futureproofing the food system FNCE Unmetered

Sustainability may be a rising priority influencing consumer purchases, but optimistic projections that 2022 would be the year of the ‘climatarian’ appear to be a bit premature – giving brands and retailers more time to improve and finetune their positioning and marketing on topic.

According to consumer research presented by Datassential at the Food Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Orlando last week, three-quarters of consumers claim their values are a huge part of their identities and 71% claim their personal values influence their food choices and what they eat.

This includes climate change, which has worked its way up into the top five issues on which consumers say food brands and restaurants should take stand, Bridget Hegg, associate director of customer experience at Datassential told FNCE attendees. 

“Sustainability is becoming more and more of an important value to consumers,”​ with a quarter to a third listing it as an issue that food brands and restaurants should address, she said, noting that it comes in close behind other values, including homelessness, human rights, healthcare and hunger & food insecurity. It also edged out labor issues, gender equality, education and some equity issues.

While this may not seem like a significant portion of the population, Hegg adds that climate change is more important to younger consumers with 33% of Gen Z listing it compared to 28% and 27% of Millennials and Boomers, respectively, which suggests the issue will likely continue to grow as these consumers come into their full buying power.

But despite growing awareness and concern about climate change and who should be held accountable, it likely will be awhile still before climate change becomes a central value in consumers’ dietary patterns.

The 'climatarian diet'

According to Datassential, 77% of consumers have never heard of the climatarian diet, which is based on suggested recommendations, rather than strict rules, about how to reduce the environmental impact and carbon footprint through diet.

Only 15% of consumers report having heard about the climatarian diet, but haven’t tried it, while a mere 4% have either previously practiced it but don’t any more or currently practice it, Hegg reported.

She was quick to add that low awareness and adoption of the climatarian diet doesn’t mean manufacturers and retailers should dismiss the idea. Rather, she again noted that younger consumers and men – two important shopping demographics – are more engaged with the concept.

Of those who have heard of the diet, 25% were Gen Z and 18% of Millennials compared to only 7% Boomers, and men were more likely than women to practice it, according to Datassential.

“We need to be prepared as that population starts to get older,”​ Hegg said.

The overt term ‘sustainable’ is down significantly on menus

One way to do that is to adopt terms and diets that are adjacent to the climatarian diet, including vegetarian, seasonal, organic and vegan – all of which are top menu terms with which most consumers are aware. And of these, vegetarian and vegan are the fastest growing on menus – up 4% and 12% from a year ago, and 9% and 98% from four years ago.

Other related terms that are on the rise on menus are meat-free, which is up 7% from a year ago, plant-based (up 25%) and dairy-free (up 12%), according to Datassential.

Notably, the overt term ‘sustainable’ is down significantly on menus – dropping 9% in the past year and 11% in the past four years.

Animal-welfare claims

Animal welfare terms on the rise that are often used to highlight food quality, also play a role in sustainable food production systems and helping to connect the dots between them and climate change could help brands and restaurants better position themselves for when the climatarian diet gains traction.

In the past four years, Datassential found claims on menus for pasture raised are up 45%, humane 200%, cage-free 31%, antibiotic free 13% and hormone free 13%.

Other sustainable terms that resonate with consumers include all natural, which 58% of consumers said they loved or liked. About half said the same for farm raised and 47% said so for organic, Hegg noted.

However, she cautioned, before brands and restaurants embrace sustainability and climate change terms, they need to ensure that what they attribute them to either meet regulated definitions (as in the case or organic) or if they aren’t regulated that they aren’t accidentally greenwashing their products – a mistake that increasingly sophisticated consumers will quickly spot and penalize brands for.

Learn more about sustainability claims at FoodNavigator-USA’s 2022 Summit

Industry stakeholders interested in learning more about sustainable really means in the context of the food system can do so at FoodNavigator-USA’s upcoming digital summit – Futureproofing the Food System.

The free to attend three-day event will explore and attempt to decode sustainability claims ranging from ‘climate-friendly’ to ‘carbon neutral’ to ‘zero-waste.’

It also will explore the progress industry is making on reducing the environmental impact of food packaging, with top industry players, including The Coca-Cola Co., Danone and Del Monte sharing strategies and lessons learned.

The conference also will take a closer look at the food as medicine movement and emerging food-tech. Check out the full agenda​ and register HERE​.

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