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What happens when consumers hold the course, using their purchasing powers for good…food? Big food conglomerates listen. And, the sustainable food movement braces itself.

Googling sustainable food, sustainable agriculture, and related movements can make the average consumer want to bury their head in the dirt next to the free range, grass fed, certified humane, certified organic animals that could end up on their plate if they’re good enough, conscious enough, and wealthier than average. No matter how conscious an eater one is, creating a fully sustainable diet doesn’t always seem that accessible. The time, energy and money that it takes to find the most organic, humanely-raised, nutritiously sustainable food is a reasonable sacrifice for the privileged minority, but for the masses, there are pretty severe roadblocks.

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Sustainable Food Trends

Whether trendy, or purpose-driven, the desire to obtain the most sustainable food is becoming ubiquitous. According to Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill in New York City, and author of the latest food revolution book, The Third Plate: “Today, almost 80 percent of Americans say sustainability is a priority when purchasing food.”

And it shows. Small farms are popping up at a rate that competes with the frequency of new grocery stores. People are spending more money at farmers markets, cooperative food stores, and on organic brands in chain grocery stores. According to a recent study by Gibbs-rbb Strategic Communication, Americans are willing to spend quite a bit more – 31% beyond the average household’s $119 in food expenditures, to be exact – to support more responsible food production.

“Today, almost 80 percent of Americans say sustainability is a priority when purchasing food.” – Dan Barber

Consumers are pickier overall in their shopping habits, seeking the premium in sustainable, natural, and organic foods that they can buy from the most socially and environmentally responsible company.

Per the law of supply and demand, as “good” food popularity increases, prices are slowly dropping. And the food industry is paying attention, producing organic and all natural labels in droves.

The proliferation of corporations like Whole Foods, and brands like Kashi, Organic Valley and Nature’s Path, are testament to the shift that consumers are responsible for.

With an increase in interest, and a willingness to pay more for “better” food, prices aren’t budging enough for some. Organic food is still out of reach for the majority of consumers.

Searching for a Middle Ground

Large corporations say they are trying to bridge the gap for consumers by offering sustainable, and organic choices at lower prices. Big grocery store chains are finding ways to fill their shelves with their own sustainable food line labeled organic, natural, or free range for a little less than existing organic brands.

But, unlike sustainable food brands like Kashi, and Organic Valley, chain stores like Food Lion often provide little evidence to substantiate labeled claims on their Nature’s Place products. Like the audience at a magic show, some consumers are feeling fooled. With prosumerism at its height, consumers want to know what’s behind the magic mirror of labels.

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Traditional organic and sustainable sources – local coops, local farms, farmers markets – are obviously pretty transparent. Big brands like Kashi and Nature’s Path, have ratings, metrics, and extensive marketing content and videos that credit their sustainability claims.

And, subsequently, this is where those willing to pay 31% more, shop.

When Walmart goes Organic

Shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and buying from more transparent sustainable brands is typically more palatable for the ultra-conscious eater than perusing Walmart aisles for one of many “sustainable” or “organic” products priced to significantly undercut other organic brands.

Walmart has supplied organic brands and produce to a wider audience for over a decade, offering products at a lower price than other vendors. So, their recent partnership with Wild Oats Market is not surprising. The Walmart/Wild Oats brand significantly stands apart, though, in that it offers some products priced at nearly half that of other organic brands.

The partnership is based on Walmart’s study showing that 91% of Walmart shoppers say they would go organic if organic food prices were more reasonable. Hence, Walmart’s tagline connected to the Wild Oats brand: “Organic doesn’t have to cost a premium.”

The Wild Oats brand, apart from it’s Walmart partnership, makes their mission clear: to provide affordable organic food. Their website is centered on this point. But, there are no videos, few articles, and no metrics related to sustainable farm sourcing.

What does this mean for the sustainable food market? When Walmart goes organic making what was once extravagant affordable, what happens?

One outlook is that many consumers who couldn’t or wouldn’t have afforded a wide-range of organic products now can, which, in turn, supports more sustainable food systems worldwide. Families and children may have a better opportunity to live healthier lives or, at minimum, to be more exposed to alternative, earth friendly and life supporting growing methods. These consumers would argue that this partnership just makes organic and sustainable options more commonplace, more the norm, which has to be a good thing.

On the flip side, sustainable food advocates say that Walmart and their eventual followers will disrupt the sustainable food system as we know it by:

  • driving prices down, putting small farmers and food cooperatives either out of business or under serious pressure.
  • under-compensating farmers and workers connected with their new Wild Oats brand.
  • significantly fogging the already dim transparency related to local and organic farming.

To further substantiate this view, naysayers point out that organic brands that have been offered by Walmart (Dean foods – Horizon Dairy; and Aurora Dairy) for over a decade have been under scrutiny for years by organic watchdog groups and the USDA for poor transparency.

When Walmart goes organic making what was once extravagant affordable, what happens?

It’s hard to wade through the ocean of green washing jargon to get to the heart of the matter. How “good” are the farms and brands you’re buying from? Just how “organic”, “natural”, and sustainably produced are the products labeled as such?

As in most things, seeing is believing. And, all most corporations “show” us are labels.

…“all natural”, “organic”, “cage-free”, “grass-fed”…

While transparency may exist in the form of CSR and sustainability reports, they are often vague and confusing to the average consumer, and are not all that accessible.

Consumers want to see these efforts in action – the farmers that planted the seeds, the fertilizers used or not used, the cover crops that would feed the soil, the laying chickens running free, etc., and the metrics that prove it’s all sustainable.

Walmart’s Growers’ Stories campaign is a great example of this. It includes web videos that highlight the farm to store partnership and the family farm/local food concept, both pieces of the sustainable food puzzle. Sustainable and organic growing methods, and metrics, however, are largely excluded from these stories.

Whole Foods goes a little deeper. A recent in-store video campaign brought the farms they source from to the store by showing videos of the grazing and free-roaming animals that provided the very meat consumers had to choose from, outlining the methods that earned the farms they grazed on the “certified humane” stamp.

While it may seem crazy to want to see the animal you are 
about to eat in its living form, consumers loved it. Knowing where food comes from and how it is grown or treated has become pretty important to Americans.

The New Corporate Challenge

Although the general public doesn’t always feel or see the affects, corporations are changing.

CSR and sustainability efforts are embedded into every corporate model. Trained CSOs (chief sustainability officers) are being hired and social impact teams are being created to fuel these efforts.

Mars, Inc., with subsidiaries such as Uncle Ben’s Rice, Seeds of Change Organics, and Pedigree, is a good example of recent efforts. Their huge sustainability strides are highlighted in web videos and television commercials.

Mars committed to the RE100 challenge presented at the UN Climate Summit (CWNYC) last month, which states that corporations aligning themselves with the challenge will commit to using 100% renewable energy in coming years. Mars, Inc. says they are committed to zero carbon emissions and100% renewable energy by 2040. The company recently invested in 25,000 acres in Texas where 118 wind turbines have been erected to generate the equivalent amount of electricity in would take to power 61,000 households, accounting for 24% of the company’s global footprint. To say the least, that’s a step in the sustainable direction.

Mars, Inc. has also been heavily involved in the sustainable cocoa initiative for years, having committed in 2009 to source 100% certified sustainable cocoa by 2020. It’s work with The Rainforest Alliance to achieve this goal was highlighted in the Galaxy Chocolate campaign in their “Green Frog Seal” commercial.

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It’s hard to wade through the ocean of green washing jargon to get to the heart of the matter. How “good” are the farms and brands you’re buying from? Just how “organic”, “natural”, and sustainably produced are the products labeled as such?

With social responsibility and sustainability on the top of consumers’ lists, corporations, as Whole Foods and Mars (among others) did, have the opportunity to seize the moment, to educate consumers about where their food comes from and why that’s important to the corporation. Buzzwords just aren’t enough anymore. While most corporations are on board in theory, they are still feeling their way along this path of a new culture of consumerism.

Unilever has committed to %100 sustainable food sourcing by 2020, recently outlining it’s new “vision” in Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, “to double the size of the business, whilst reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact.”

Cargill’s website says they are “committed to feeding the world in a responsible way; reducing our environmental impact; and improving the communities where we live and work.”

With social responsibility and sustainability on the top of consumers’ lists, corporations, as Whole Foods did, have the opportunity to seize the moment, to educate consumers about where their food comes from and why that’s important to the corporation.

Consumers want to see those plans in action. Showing sells, both ideas and products. And showing the good that companies are doing only sells more these days.

Walmart’s new Wild Oats brand is proof that consumers power the corporate engine. But, in this case, consumers and prosumers feel that their work may have backfired, that the “good” that Walmart says it’s doing could threaten the viability of sustainable food systems.

Explaining themselves has always been challenging for corporations, but the new phase of the triple bottom line mandates it. And as consumers grow more conscious, transparency is the key to selling the future of sustainable food for all. “Organic doesn’t have to cost a premium” is really appealing, and could be revolutionary if properly fortified by transparent practices. In the end, transparency leads us all to the choices that best meet standards dictated by the triple bottom line.

About

Jamie Penn is a purposeful marketing strategist, mother of three, a writer, and a social media junkie. She was an environmentalist before it was cool; loves mothering, writing, travel and food; refuses to follow recipes; and voraciously researches, writes about, and assists in video production for the companies consumers trust.

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