SAN FRANCISCO — The recession has altered the public's commitment to sustainability, but it will hold business accountable in the long run, according to a panel of researchers at the second-ever Sustainability Summit sponsored here by Food Marketing Institute.
“People's perspectives have shifted in this economy to more short-term goals and more immediate needs,” said Scott Bearse, retail store operating lead and director of the consumer and industry products division for Deloitte Consulting, Boston.
However, as the economy improves and awareness of sustainability issues grows, “[sustainability] will not be an option but a reality that will only get more difficult” for individuals and businesses, Bearse said.
“Consumers may not understand all the issues, but they will hold companies accountable later for the decisions they make now,” he pointed out.
Based on studies on shoppers' in-store habits, Bearse said, “We've found a lower equation for social values since late 2008, with only 20% — way down from the prior year — being willing to pay more for organics, natural foods and environmental concerns.”
Linda Povey, vice president of strategic solutions for Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, Pa., said consumers have “contracted emotionally for the short term, starting with themselves.
“They feel less control and they want immediate, tangible results, and they can get that from controlling what goes into their body,” she explained. “But some consumers simply opt out. If they can't shop their way to sustainability, they tend to buy less.”
In the long run, however, there will be a re-prioritization, “where people are willing to pay more for products they value more,” Povey said. “They will continue to be more frugal, but their interest in products related to values and personal health will not change.”
According to Jhana Senxian, president of the Sustainability Guild, Cambridge, Mass., “As the economy has become more difficult, the types of choices companies make are changing. While most top-performing companies are increasing their focus on sustainability issues, some organizations are less committed and are stepping back on some sustainable actions.”
She also said 9% of companies in a survey indicated a lack of any interest in investing in sustainability. “They say they will move only if government regulations require them to change. They say they believe it just adds costs and doesn't make business sense,” Senxian explained.
Most consumers are still on a learning curve about sustainability, Bearse noted. “People will start with one category, then add another. It's not a static customer but a dynamic, changing customer.”
“That provides an opportunity for retailers to collaborate with consumers,” Senxian said.
Keeping consumers informed will have a salutary effect on getting more people interested in pursuing sustainable solutions, Bearse added. “Most of these consumers don't respond to buy-one, get-one-free offers the way they do to the values of certain sustainable products, with studies showing the number of those consumers exceeding 50%, which I believe represents a permanent shift in values that will lead people to rethink their priorities.
“Some people will pay a premium for sustainable products — for example, those with fewer preservatives or less packaging — and as long as the product performs, they will go back to it.”
Povey said studies over the last 18 months indicate an overlap between personal health issues and planetary health issues.
Bearse offered a similar view, based on his studies. “People are worrying about what they put in their body and what impact it has over the long term, and they also feel responsible for what goes into landfills,” he explained.
In other comments, Povey suggested retailers drop use of the word “green” — “because it's become synonymous with green-washing,” she explained — in favor of the word “sustainable.”
RETAILERS JOIN ALLIANCE
In a separate workshop, Tom McIntyre, director of conservation and environmental stewardship for Supervalu, Minneapolis, said his company opted to join the Retail Energy Alliance sponsored by the Department of Energy “because we realize the importance of working with a third party to help give us good direction and talk over various issues with other retailers.”
Although Supervalu provides help to some of its independent customers “to offer them the same opportunities to lessen their impact on the environment, we struggle with how to communicate our victories. So when a branch of the U.S. government says we're an industry leader, that's huge for us.”
Speaking on the same panel, Wayne Rosa, strategic sourcing manager, energy and maintenance, for Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., agreed the open forums sponsored by the Department of Energy “have helped us focus on decisions, opportunities and challenges.”