Earlier during the COVID pandemic, many of us faced significant changes in our routines to access mainstay products we keep in our kitchens and prepare meals. As we saw food supply levels and variety be impacted by the pandemic, we also witnessed food system workers be influenced as well. Many companies went out of business or could not safely host workers on farms or in processing facilities. Several of these elements are linked to both environmental and social sustainability aspects of our food supply—where and how our food is grown, who readies our food for purchasing and when will it be able to reach consumers were all greatly impacted.
Steadfast desired product characteristics
This spring, the IFIC 2021 Food and Health Survey aimed to take a look at how environmental and social sustainability perceptions impact purchase decisions. As seen in past Food and Health Surveys, taste, price, healthfulness, and convenience remain top drivers for purchase decisions this year. In comparison to these drivers, only 31% of consumers say environmental sustainability is a top driver. This mirrors the results of IFIC’s 2020 Consumer Survey: Eating and Shopping During a Global Pandemic, a COVID-specific study performed in September 2020, when COVID infection rates were rapidly growing across the country. That study showed that 45% of survey takers reported price had the biggest impact on their decisions to buy food and beverages, with 27% reporting that taste was a top priority. In contrast, just 16% selected environmental sustainability (as one of their top three choices) and the lowest priority was a company’s mission and values, with just 14% ranking this aspect in their top three selections.
Still, as seen in other Food and Health Surveys, our 2021 findings found that when asked if it’s important that the foods they purchase or consume are produced in an environmentally sustainable way, the majority of survey takers (53%) said yes. However, this marked a downturn from previous years: in 2020, 59% responded in the affirmative. Of this 53%, we asked what they look for as an indication that a product is produced in an environmentally sustainable way. The top three indicators cited by survey takers included recyclable packaging (51%), labeled as sustainably sourced (46%), and reusable packaging (41%).
Move over environment, here come the people
Over the course of the pandemic, many media stories focused on how food system workers were impacted by pandemic woes, which in turn affected food accessibility for many others. Spurred on by these concerns, for the first time the 2021 Food and Health Survey asked a series of questions about how elements of social sustainability (i.e., the well-being and treatment of people involved in the food supply chain) impact consumer purchase decisions.
When asked how important it is to them that the food products they purchase or consume are produced in ways that are committed to the fair and equitable treatment of workers (e.g., farmhands, factory workers, retail and foodservice staff), 27% said that it was very important, and 32% said it was somewhat important. Of the total 59% that said this aspect of production was important, 44% said it was easy to find information about this being a characteristic of either food producers, manufacturers, stores or restaurants. However, 48% noted that it was at least somewhat difficult to find this information. This likely indicates that additional communications measures should be undertaken in order to expand the reach of this type of information to the public.
A deeper dive into the data from asking these socially-linked questions, we see that survey takers that are parents (69%), Black/African American (68%), and those who made an effort on social/food issues in 2020 (67%) tended to find fair and equitable treatment more important than other survey takers. These same groups of people also were more likely to note that social sustainability information was easy to find.
Gratefully, in many regions of our country access to food, cleaning supplies, toilet paper and many other items we witnessed flying off of shelves (or not reaching them at all), has resumed typical availability in our neighborhood stores and online. However, we know the pandemic is not over and more work has to be done by industry stakeholders, food system employees and consumers to help ensure steady food availability, food system worker sustainability (safety and fairness) and food safety. Our team continues to be hopeful for continued improvements in all these areas, and we hope you do too.