NPD Group: US consumers beginning to weigh in environmental impact when making food and beverage purchases

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

 ©GettyImages / Paolo Paradiso
©GettyImages / Paolo Paradiso

Related tags: Npd group, Sustainability

An increasing proportion of US consumers (between 18- and 44-years-old) claim to be factoring in the environmental impact before purchasing a food or beverage product, according to NPD Group.

NPD Group's national Health Aspirations and Behavioral Tracking Service​ found that one in 10 US adults switched to a different food or beverage brand because it had 'Earth-friendly'practices such as recyclable packaging and 9% of adults consider the environment a top factor when making food and beverage purchases.

This Earth-conscious behavior extends to foodservice as well: Over half of adults who ordered restaurant take-out or delivery in the past 30 days reported that the restaurant they ordered from had Earth-friendly practices such as using food containers made from recycled materials. 

According to NPD Group's SupplyTrack service, which tracks shipments from broadline foodservice distributors to commercial and non-commercial foodservice operators, plastic straws still make up the bulk of straw foodservice shipments, but plastic straw shipments are down 4%, and paper straw shipments are up 4%.

'Sustainability can be a deciding factor for consumers'

"These numbers indicate progress is being made, but there still is a long way to go in terms of mass consumer adoption of sustainability efforts,"​ said Darren Seifer, executive director and industry analyst of food consumption at NPD Group. 

"Consumers are also taking time to distinguish between authentic sustainability efforts and 'green-washing' ​(a marketing term, which refers to a company falsely promoting the perception that its practices are environmentally friendly) or promotion that is not backed up by effort."

Third-party organizations such as Fair Trade and the non-profit B-Corp​ have helped establish a set of guidelines and certification process for companies to be considered an environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible business.

"The good news is that the issue is now front and center. Although adoption may be slow, it’s on consumers’ minds, and change is beginning to happen."

Sales of products mentioning a sustainability or environmental claim (​carbon neutral, ethically sourced, made with renewable energy, etc.) are outperforming conventional products at a rate of 4x in a number of categories including chocolate and coffee, according to Nielsen point-of-sale data​ between March 2017 and March 2018.  

"Sustainability can be a deciding factor for consumers. While concerns like taste, convenience, health, and affordability are still primary factors for choosing foods and beverages, a company’s sustainability efforts can be the tie breaker if all other factors are equal," ​said Seifer.

Plant-based alternatives are the 'conscience-satisfying' choice

The consumer shift towards more environmentally-friendly food products can be seen clearly in the plant-based meat alternative space, according to Seifer, who noted that plant-based burgers are benefiting from consumers' mental shift towards sustainable products (as long as they deliver on taste and can satisfy the meat eating experience.)

"Consumers can use these burgers to assuage concerns about animal welfare, environmental sustainability, nutrition, and more. At the same time, they’re eating a product with a flavor profile that delivers on their expectations. It’s a conscience-satisfying choice with the 'treat' experience of eating a burger,"​ said Seifer. 

Plant-based burger sales have increased nearly 30% in the foodservice channel and servings of veggie burgers ordered at US restaurants reached 342 million in the year ending March 2019, an 8% increase from year ago, shown by NPD's foodservice consumer tracking service.

"With large chains like Burger King and White Castle now offering their own plant-based burgers, it’s safe to say this has become mainstream,"​ added Seifer.

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