Skepticism of sustainability claims pushes companies to be more transparent about progress, lean on certifications

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	gahsoon
Source: Getty/ gahsoon

Related tags Sustainability

As consumers become more interested in sustainable food production and packaging, they are becoming increasingly sophisticated and skeptical in their assessment of green claims – pushing for more specificity, traceability, transparency and veracity, according to research by Innova Market Insights.

“The health of the planet … has been a really big and growing consumer concern over the years,” and it is increasingly influencing what shoppers buy and which companies they support, Tom Vierhile, vice president of strategic insights at Innova Market Insights, told attendees at Natural Products Expo West last month.

He noted 37% of US and European consumers reported in Innova Trends Survey 2023 that the health of the planet concerns them the most. In addition, he said nearly two-thirds of US and European consumers report their food and beverage choices largely reflect their values and beliefs – including sustainability.

“This is becoming important. Consumers want to know what is the company policy around these areas and how is the company addressing things like sustainability,” and about half are looking on product packaging for this information, he said.

What sustainability claims resonate with consumers?

As such, he said, in the last ten years companies have made increasingly specific sustainability claims, including a rise in claims about regenerative agriculture coupled with agroforestry, composting and perennial cropping.

These claims indicate an increase interest in moving beyond sustainability and embracing what Innova characterizes as “nature protection” claims, which include animal welfare, ocean protection and water usage claims, according to Innova’s research.

In addition, “a lot of companies are making carbon claims – saying they are going to go to net zero at some point or that they are reducing their carbon emissions,” which about half of US and European consumers said is the most important factor in determining how sustainable a product is, Vierhile said.

He added about half of consumers look for carbon emissions claims on product packaging – prompting a sort of brinksmanship around these claims that could trigger litigation if not sufficiently explained and appropriately characterized.

“Carbon emissions claims are something that is something that is really hot,” but “it is also something that is increasingly contentious,” as consumers and regulators wonder what net zero emissions, carbon neutral or carbon negative mean, he said.

Other companies are zeroing in on upcycling and food waste reduction, which resonate with consumers who care about the planet and their budgets in the current inflationary period where waste has become “very expensive,” Vierhile said.

For example, he noted, the number of food and beverage products making upcycling claims has increased on average 37% annually in US and Europe between 2019 and 2023.

“That is something that is really taking off,” Vierhile said.

‘Positively imperfect’ trend offers honest companies wiggle room on sustainability

As consumers learn more about the complexity of sustainability initiatives they are less likely to accept general green claims or accept rosy storytelling that does not provide details about companies’ progress towards environmental goals.

“In 2023, one of our top 10 trends here at Innova was a trend we called ‘positively imperfect,’ which sounds like an oxymoron, but which is all about companies being upfront and truthful about he struggle to try to be sustainable,” Vierhile said.

He added that two-thirds of consumers in 2023 said they would trust a company that is upfront about the struggle more than a company that does not share details about their journey.

In addition, one-third of US and European consumers say honesty and transparency are the most important values related to food, he said. These values are playing out in consumer interest around how food was produced, where ingredients are sourced, how stakeholders across the value chain are treated and more, he added.

Consumer interest in transparency is fueling demand for transparency, which Vierhile noted is the top sustainability claim, according to Innova research.

When evaluating transparency, companies and consumers are increasingly turning to “trustworthy certifications,” including USDA Organic, Fair Trade, B Crop, and others.

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