Sustainability is a lot more complex, and a lot less intuitive, than is often assumed.
Sustainability — whether a philosophical position, an agricultural practice or the basis of marketing strategy — is a lot more complex, and a lot less intuitive, than is often assumed. That, with an extensive amount of supporting detail, was the educational takeaway most participants had from the Northwest Sustainability Discovery Tour offered by Oregon food processor Truitt Bros. in August. The annual event is one the company sponsors as part of efforts to shed a more focused light on this subject for the foodservice community.
From Virtue to Value
The event's theme, “From Virtue to Value,” summed up the need operators have to become better educated about sustainability if they want to make it more than a simple “feel good” positioning statement, said company President Peter Truitt.
“There has to be some tangible, measurable value that sustainability efforts bring to your company and customers, because your goal, if you operate a foodservice business, is to stay in business,” he said. “When you are doing all you can to stay afloat, one of the basics of sustainability is staying afloat.”
A tightly orchestrated series of nearly two dozen case studies, lectures, moderated discussion groups and farm and processing tours explored this theme over the next two days. Presenters included chefs, restaurant entrepreneurs, a life cycle assessment analyst, farmers, processors and marketing experts.
“What makes a brand sustainable? When consumers are asked, you find the word means different things to different people,” observed Michelle Barry, senior VP of The Hartman Group, a market research firm (see chart on p.43).
Barry noted, for example, that research found that 88 percent of consumers say they embrace some level of sustainability in their personal lives. At the same time, only 29 percent can identify a sustainable company and just 25 percent can identify a specific sustainable product.
“This represents a great opportunity, because consumers want to be part of it, but most don't know who is doing it or why,” she added. “Food is the number one gateway product for individuals looking to embrace a sustainable lifestyle.”
Finding a Message That Resonates
At the same time, “consumers clearly associate sustainability with a demonstration of responsibility, of ‘doing the right thing,’” Barry noted.
“For those seeking to communicate sustainability efforts, this is the way to couch your message so that it will resonate broadly.”
Because consumers range from those with a peripheral interest, to “mid-level” sustainability consumers, to “core” sustainability advocates, positioning can be difficult, Barry said. Core sustainability consumers see greater value in authenticity and transparency, for example, while peripheral consumers still put a high value on price and convenience, taking sustainability into account “when it makes sense” to them, she explained.
On the other hand, when sustainability is presented in terms of personal benefit attributes, such as improved health and wellness for one's self and family, “it has appeal that crosses all groups,” she added.
Many sustainability myths have been generated over the years, often fueled by incomplete life cycle assessments of the impact food production and consumption has on the environment. An in-depth introduction to such issues was provided by Rita Schenck, executive director of the Institute for Environmental Research & Education and an authority on inter national standards development in this area. Schenck explored the methodologies used, and also sought to debunk what she said were common myths about sustainability. A few of these:
“Food miles don't matter,” she declared bluntly. “With the exception of air travel shipment from distant locations, only about two percent of the total carbon footprint of food is in transport. The biggest source of food mile impact is the drive to the grocery store…”
“Organic food production is not always environmentally friendly: it uses more land and energy; sometimes pesticides are not the biggest source of toxicity to the environment.”
“Packaging has a small impact overall on the sustainability footprint of products Single-serve chili, despite packaging, is more environmentally friendly than scratch made at home.”
“A comparison of the impact of using disposable cups vs. china cups in foodservice is often a wash, and an aesthetic or convenience decision, not an environmental decision.” The exception, she said, was if electricity used in warewashing was generated by an especially “dirty” utility or a “clean” means like windpower.
5 Tips for Positioning a Sustainable Brand
Michelle Barry, Ph.D., senior VP of The Hartman Group, has been studying consumer behavior in relation to sustainability for two decades. She offers five tips for those looking to effectively position a sustainable brand in the minds of customers:
1. Speak to consumers using their own words to describe sustainability.
2. Link your product or service to a personal consumer benefit if possible.
3. Understand that sustainability isn't just about environmental concerns.
4. Tell consumers the story behind your sustainable product.
5. Connect “value” with quality in the current economic downtown.
Consumers define Sustainability in a multitude of ways
Ability to last over time 76%
Source: Sustainability 2008 Survey, Sept 2008.