Whether buying fresh produce at the store or deciding how to properly dispose of a drink container once its contents have been enjoyed—or, when celebrating World Food Day, the United Nation’s annual day highlighting how to build a sustainable food future for our planet—we see the ways our plates and planet are undeniably linked on a daily basis.
But when it comes to the impact that personal food decisions have on global sustainability, what’s top-of-mind for consumers in the U.S.? What concerns do Americans have related to food and climate change, and how do their beliefs and opinions impact the types of foods and beverages they choose to purchase? IFIC’s 2023 Consumer Climate Change Perceptions and Purchase Impacts aimed to explore these questions.
- Three in four Americans are concerned about climate change.
- Most Americans who are concerned about climate change are also concerned about the impact of human food production on climate change.
- When it comes to considering the climate friendliness of foods and beverages, consumers most commonly always do so for fruits and vegetables, dairy, and beef.
- Half of consumers have heard about the impact of food and beverages on climate change in the media.
- Labels that indicate recyclable or reusable packaging are perceived by consumers as very meaningful labels when they are looking for climate-friendly food and beverage options.
Concern about climate change extends to concern about the impact of food on climate change. When those concerned about climate change in general were asked about their level of concern on a diverse range of food- and beverage-related factors related to climate change, at least half expressed concern for each of them. These factors include how crops are grown (with 74% at least somewhat concerned); what foods and beverages contribute to packaging waste (74%) and food waste (73%); what foods and beverages are frequently consumed (62%); and where foods and beverages are sold (58%).
Diving into demographic comparisons, those with college degrees were more likely to say they were very concerned about each of these factors, compared with those without college degrees.
Concern doesn’t always translate into action. Among those at least somewhat concerned about the impact of food on climate change, only 25% said their concern always impacts what foods and beverages they purchase. However, over half (57%) said this concern sometimes has an impact, while one in five (19%) say it never does.
What scenarios may impact these purchasing behaviors? Healthfulness and price play a role. Among Americans who said their concern at least sometimes impacts their food purchases, consumers most commonly reported adjusting their purchasing when a climate-friendly product was healthier (with 30% selecting this option among their top-two reasons) or when the cost was lower (30%).
Half have heard about the impact of food or beverage production on climate change in the media. In addition, one in five (19%) shared that they have heard or read a lot about it, while 34% said they have heard or read a little. The most popular issues within this topic were related to how food-producing animals are managed on ranches and farms (53%) and what foods or beverages contribute to packaging waste (52%). The survey also revealed that learning about these issues is impactful: Many consumers (61%) at least somewhat agreed that they changed their food or beverage consumption habits as a result of the content they had seen.
However, with the other half of Americans (47%) reporting that they have not heard or read about the impact of food on climate change, it is evident that there have been gaps in educating the public on this issue. Further exploring demographic differences among survey respondents, certain groups were more likely to have been exposed to food and climate change content in the media. Men, those under age 45, those with higher incomes, and those with college degrees were more likely to say they have heard or read a lot about this impact, compared with their respective counterparts. By contrast, those ages 45–64 and those who do not have college degrees were more likely than their respective counterparts to say they have not heard or read about this issue in the media.
Packaging is powerful. When respondents were asked about the extent to which different labels indicate climate friendliness to them, label statements about a product’s packaging materials were most commonly perceived to be very meaningful. In particular, 45% found “recyclable packaging” to be very meaningful when indicating a product’s climate friendliness, and 41% said the same about “reusable” packaging. Interestingly, slightly fewer found a more explicit “earth-friendly” label to be very meaningful, with 39% saying so.
It is also worth noting that the information on packaging itself is perceived to be a helpful resource. When respondents were asked about which sources they would seek if they wanted to learn more about choosing foods and beverages that are part of a climate-friendly diet, on-package information sources were most commonly cited—in particular, the ingredients list (with 22% selecting this option in their top-two choices) and labels on the front of a food package (22%) rose to the top.
Currently, consumers are mixed on how exactly to describe a “climate-friendly food or beverage.” Although specific indicators rise to the top when determining the climate friendliness of a product, consumers are split on the phrases that best describe what a “climate-friendly” food product is. When users were provided with a list of phrases and asked to rank their first, second, and third choices, there was no clear winner; phrases like “doesn’t generate packaging waste” (10% ranked this as their first choice), “has reduced carbon footprint” (10%) and “supports local farmers” (10%) were the most commonly selected as first choice options, but performed relatively similarly to many of the other phrases shown to respondents.