Summer, 2009

Cover & Feature Stories

The Many Faces Of Green Consumers...And How U.S. Products Suit Them

Sustainability has many faces. There is a theory behind sustainability — a complicated matter that holds that businesses have responsibilities in three separate spheres: the economic, the social and the environmental. The motivations for why companies engage in sustainability practices range from the most altruistic to the most self-interested.

There is a dictatorial kind of sustainability in which many vendors, maybe most, embrace sustainability not so much out of an intellectual understanding or out of a passion for the subject but, rather, because customers dictate that their suppliers get certifications or collect data. There is also sustainability as a marketing pitch, and this is probably the most prevalent use of sustainability today.

Now, to be clear, we need to distinguish the marketing of authentic sustainability efforts and what is popularly called “green-washing,” a play on the term “white-washing,” which means an attempt to cover up bad behavior or conditions with a coat of white paint, much as one might cover up a dirty fence or wall by washing it with white paint.

Green washing comes in two variants: The first is attempting to cover up practices that are not sustainable with a façade of sustainability. Besides the ethical problems of this approach, in the age of blogs — Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. — it is very likely that such deception will be uncovered and a corporate reputation diminished by word of the obfuscation.

The second variant of green-washing is doing exactly what you were going to do anyway and proclaiming a “green” motivation for your actions. In the United States, there has been a trend for supermarkets to stop selling live lobsters. This mostly has to do with the low popularity of the item, since consumers typically think of this as a restaurant luxury rather than a regular, home-cooked meal. It also has to do with the difficulty in the supermarket environment of maintaining live items and the availability of frozen lobster meat.

Yet, this has not stopped some retailers from proclaiming that they are halting sales of live lobster to avoid cruelty to the crustaceans. To some, such a call reverberates; others see it as phony. We can’t say what is in the hearts of men, but it is an area in which one should tread cautiously.

Beyond green-washing, though, there is an opportunity to reach out to consumers with messages that go beyond price, quality and service, with messages that encourage consumers to judge not just the product sitting before them, but the company and supply chain that produced it.

It is a way of going to consumers and saying that a particular product is produced in accordance with a particular consumer’s values.

Fortunately, the United States is filled with a diverse range of consumers, and so producers have come to produce products in accordance with the values of many different people. The key for marketers is to match the consumer with the product.

In general, we can divide consumers into the following categories along the path of sustainability:

 

The Dedicated Sophisticates

These folks know sustainability cold. They are conversant not only with the terms such as “carbon footprint” and “food miles,” but they understand the complexities of these issues. They may inquire about a “life-cycle analysis” of the carbon footprint or water use of a particular product, or they may ask if a product comes directly to their local store or must go through some distant depot first.

They think broadly and so, expect more than environmentalism from their food. They feel social obligation and will want to know about labor issues. If buying from developing countries, they will seek out Fair Trade items. They will pay more because they understand the economic sphere is important, too. They believe they can’t get the environmental stewardship and social concern they want without paying extra. In fact, low prices can make them suspicious that someone has taken a short-cut along the production and distribution chain.

 

The Special Interests

These consumers may not know much about the theoretical background of sustainability, but they have passionate interest in something specific. They may wish to “save the rainforest” or “save the whales.” It is possible that they are tightly focused on environmental causes or social causes.

People in this classification include animal lovers who are often very focused on awards from groups such as the ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals.

 

The Specific Sustainers

These folks may have picked up some tidbit of knowledge and may look for that specific thing. They may choose a shopping venue, such as a specific supermarket chain, because they have heard it has practices of which they approve. Or they may have read about a specific certification or brand they seek.

They may not know very much about these things but they have read or heard good things about certain companies, brands or practices and so bias their shopping toward these companies, brands or practices.

 

Baby First

These consumers are typically very focused on the environmental aspect of sustainability and are significant consumers of organic products. But budgetary concerns, combined with a sense that chemicals and pesticides are of greater concern with a baby or small child, lead these families to focus their effort on buying organic food only for the baby.

It may be baby food, then later organic milk and meat, both as a way of avoiding hormones. In any case, they are primarily interested in what is good for their children — less so on broader environmental and social issues.

 

Experimenters

They will try different things each shopping trip. Is an organic apple tastier? They will try it and find out for themselves. Is this authentic portrait of a rancher meaningful to the experience of eating meat? They will try the meat and make that decision.

Each shopping trip is an experiment and, by trial and error, they are inching toward more sustainable product choices.

 

The Ignorants

These folks simply don’t know much about the subject. They live in their own world and somehow manage to miss most of the discussion on sustainability in the media and so it doesn’t influence them.

It is not an important issue with their social group, either. These folks can sometimes be turned-on to sustainability, but it requires an educational effort.

 

The Indifferents

These consumers know the buzz on sustainability, but don’t care. They have other priorities. Some of it may be financial, where they are focused solely on feeding their family; in other cases, it is a life-phase issue, where other priorities take up the attention available. They see and know the differences as far as sustainability goes, but they select on different criteria.

 

The Skeptics

These shoppers know all about sustainability and are having none of it. They tend to be particularly suspicious of promises to donate money to charity if you buy a product, either doubting the charity will ever see the money or fearing they wouldn’t approve of the charity if they really knew what it did. They will go out of their way to avoid supporting concepts or causes they don’t believe in.

Now let us take a look at the many ways American products can help attract and retain consumers along the journey to sustainability.

 

Organic

The American food industry now has an organic version of almost everything produced. The truth is, the relationship between USDA-certified organic product and sustainability is hotly disputed. Advocates will point to the elimination of synthetic pesticides as a triple play: A win for the environment, farm workers and consumers. On the other hand, those less convinced that organic and sustainability go together will point out organic growers often use many non-synthetic materials, such as fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.

Many also will point to lower yields, often due to the need to leave land fallow more frequently and they will ask whether lower yields are really sustainable in a world of increasing population and increasing affluence.

These are legitimate questions. However, from a marketing perspective, they may not make much of a difference. Many of the consumers who are interested in sustainability have come to assume that organic is more sustainable. Others may not be so concerned with sustainability, per se, but are seeking assurances that their food has not been genetically modified in any way — rules intrinsic to the organic standards. So offering a selection of organic foods from the wide array of American offerings is often a wise step.

 

Transitional

This one requires more consumer education, but once understood, the acceptance of transitional product is often very effective. Transitional is the name given to products — often, fresh produce — that is going through the three-year conversion process from conventionally grown to organic. Supporting farmers during this time period is crucial if one wishes to promote organic agriculture.

This three-year period is often a major obstacle to converting to organic as growers have all the expenses of organic growing but, typically, receive no price premium. Those who want to see organic practices spread have a real reason to support transitional farming.

 

Local Vs. Authentic

Although the buzzwords around sustainability such as “food miles” seem to lead to local, as the song goes: “It ain’t necessarily so.” From a conceptual level, the focus on local as being more sustainable is often false. Commercial transportation, as on a large ship, is often efficient, both economically and environmentally.

Much of the transport of food that occurs on “high-carbon” outlets, such as airplanes, are really low-carbon or no-carbon backhauls, or simply fill-ins of the cargo bay on a passenger plane that would have flown anyway.

As it happens, research on consumer attitudes toward sustainability points out that the consumer perception of the word “local” is not precisely congruent with geography. For example, it sometimes includes elements of nationalism, with consumers preferring their own country or region for reasons of pride, or attempting to keep the local economy strong.

In most cases, however, what consumers seem to mean when they speak of local is actually better expressed as authentic. In other words, consumers are really not looking for bananas grown outside London; they want to know that their food is raised well, in appropriate venues and by experienced producers.

Fortunately, the continental span of the United States provides myriad settings for authentically growing almost everything. From Maine potatoes to Hawaiian pineapples, from Florida grapefruit to Washington apples, along with all farm animals, are raised somewhere. The trick is to work with suppliers to get the authenticity story — the generations of tending the farm or how the current rancher treats the animals.

In the United States, even processed products often have authentic stories: The pasta sauce company that was founded by Italian immigrants who made sauce back in their home country or the tortilla company founded by Mexican immigrants who use the techniques taught by their abuella back generations ago.

Today, many companies have Web sites highlighting such authentic connections to the product. Others include such information on labels or packaging, while others provide point of purchase material such as posters or pamphlets. These devices can all be used to demonstrate the authentic nature of America’s food production and to build markets for specific brands.

 

Fair Trade

Although U.S.-produced products are not Fair Trade-certified, many U.S. companies re-export products or use ingredients that are Fair Trade-certified. Many U.S. firms can help importers serve the market looking for Fair Trade-certified products and ingredients.

 

Certifications

Many U.S. firms have their products certified by various organizations. The Food Alliance is perhaps the most prominent, with The Rainforest Alliance certification well known on products from tropical climes. There are, however, hundreds of standards including many product-specific programs and state-based programs. All of these programs can be used to help persuade consumers that these foods, brought from America, are produced in sustainable ways.

 

Private Programs

If you are a substantial buyer, many U.S. producers will be willing to apply for certification under your own proprietary program. For example, many U.S. producers work with British supermarkets to get certified under their proprietary food safety and sustainability programs.

For an importer, the opportunity is to go beyond simply selling product and sell the story behind the producers and the way the producers behave. Because American producers are typically good stewards of the land and because standards are high in America on issues such as food safety, there is a powerful story to tell.

If you tell it well, you can create a competitive edge for your U.S.-based product mix.  EXP