How consumers decide to buy ‘green’ foods
By Jonathan KershawPackaging Sustainability Editor pick food marketing product development
Aligning sustainability with consumer needs can support an environmentally and economically sustainable food system
Imagine you are hiring an employee to lead your company’s sustainability efforts. What would the ideal candidate be like? Perhaps you imagined someone who is passionate about recycling, drives an electric vehicle (or doesn’t drive at all), composts, conserves water and energy, and maybe even chooses to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid a greenhouse gas-emitting flight. However, what if this same person couldn’t draft a coherent email, work on a team, or carry on a conversation without interrupting? Clearly, there is a minimum skill set that is required to do any job, regardless of fit or enthusiasm. Likewise, consumers of eco-friendly foods care about the sustainability profile of the food and they expect the food to meet ‘minimum qualifications’. Messaging for sustainable products must communicate the environmental benefits and reassure consumers that product can do its functional job (spoiler alert: taste is key). Understanding why consumers ‘hire’ certain foods and positioning products to align with those needs will help companies deliver on sustainability promises while being successful in the marketplace.
Effective resumes contain information about a candidate’s education, skills, and requirements to help prospective employers identify interviewees; similarly, a certain level of information is required to help consumers understand the benefit of sustainable products. In some of my recent collaborative work, I explored strategies to increase consumer acceptance of aquaponics, a sustainable food production system where fish and vegetables are grown in the same water-circulating system to reduce inputs while maximizing outputs.1 When consumers were given a brief description of aquaponics, they preferred wild-caught fish. However, when a detailed description of the fishing methods was provided, their purchase intention for aquaponic fish exceeded that of wild-caught fish. Interestingly, the increase in purchase intention was driven by the impact of the message on expected tastiness and healthiness. Sustainability messages often create a ‘halo’ effect, a phenomenon when positive feelings created by one attribute elevate the perception of unrelated attributes. Strategic education about sustainability benefits can positively improve a product’s appeal in areas beyond the environmental benefits alone.
After preparing a basic resume, savvy jobseekers will seek to understand the goals and values of the prospective company. Likewise, it is critical to understand the values and beliefs of the target consumer. We recently demonstrated that the impact of a sustainability message depends on the characteristics of the person receiving it. 2 For example, text messages promoting plant-based eating had a bigger impact on intention to reduce meat and increase plant protein consumption when the person receiving it valued health, thought that plant-based eating was morally the right thing to do, and when they felt like others would approve of their plant-based eating. Recently, we explored how an increasingly prominent personal identity—political ideology—could influence sustainable food choices.3 We found that U.S. liberals were more open to plant-based meat alternatives than conservatives. Beyond simply intending to purchase plant-based meat alternatives more often, U.S. liberals expected the products to even taste better. Since taste experiences are connected with value systems, strategic messages resonating with the target consumer may improve sensory experiences. Understanding the consumer is a key to choosing the right promotional sustainability message.
After researching a potential employer, many job candidates will tailor their resume to highlight how their experiences can best meet the position requirements. Likewise, foods and beverages will be more successful if the product’s value aligns with the sustainability claim. Consumers ‘hire’ products for different purposes—sometimes the food must meet a functional need such as ‘fuller longer’ or ‘healthy snack’ while other times it may have a more hedonic function such as ‘indulgent dessert’. Therefore, the effectiveness of product claims will differ by product category. For example, organic is a popular claim that appeals to many consumers. However, adding an organic certification does not always increase product appeal. Although an organic seal generally does increase improve acceptance of products marketed as a healthy choice, it can actually lower the evaluation of products that promise an indulgent experience or an ingredient-specific functional benefit.4 We recently found that effect of framing a substantively identical claim with either a self or environment-focused claim depended on the product type.5 Framing the environmental claim as a personal benefit worked better when the product’s purpose was hedonic (brownies). Likewise, when the product had a more functional use (granola), framing the claim as “better for the environment” worked better. We hypothesize that the “better for you” claim worked better for an indulgent product because people ‘hire’ brownies for a more egotistic reason and thus a self-focused claim complemented the goal of consuming the product. Claims supporting (rather than distracting from) the product’s value proposition will be more successful.
Credibility and trust are also critical to a successful message. Many consumers are skeptical and unsure about what sustainability claims mean. Therefore, building trust in the brand and company are key prerequisites to effective messages. It is important to also ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’. Companies should examine their culture and how other aspects of the brand align with sustainability.
Each of these examples illustrate how crafting the right message, for the right consumer, for the right product can strengthen the evidence that the product meets the ‘minimum qualifications’ of taste and quality that consumers seek when ‘hiring’ a food or beverage. By remembering that consumers primarily buy food to eat it (not necessarily to save the planet), environmental benefits can be framed so that they also support the product experience. Aligning sustainability with consumer’s product ‘job descriptions’ can support a food system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable.
1 Kralik, B., Weisstein, F., Meyer, J., Neves, K., Anderson, D., & Kershaw, J. (2022). From water to table: A multidisciplinary approach comparing fish from aquaponics with traditional production methods. Aquaculture, 552, 737953. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquaculture.2022.737953.
2 Lim, T. J., Okine, R. N., & Kershaw, J. C. (2021). Health- or Environment-Focused Text Messages as a Potential Strategy to Increase Plant-Based Eating among Young Adults: An Exploratory Study. Foods, 10(12). https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10123147.
3 Research currently under review.
4 Nadricka, K., Millet, K., & Verlegh, P. W. J. (2020). When organic products are tasty: Taste inferences from an Organic = Healthy Association. Food Quality and Preference, 83, 103896. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2020.103896.
5 Weisstein, F. L., Meyer, J., & Kershaw, J. (2023). A matter of alignment? Effects of product types and environmental claim framing on consumer evaluation of sustainable foods. Business Strategy and the Environment (n/a). https://doi.org/10.1002/bse.3565.
Jonathan Kershaw is an associate professor of food and nutrition at Bowling Green State University.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2023 issue of Food in Canada.
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