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Creating Profits and Social Impact Through Specialty Foods Brands
- There is a wave of claims about the sustainability of products, but the definition of sustainability is fuzzy and/or narrow.
- The world of truly sustainable sourcing and packaging is a new frontier. The good work is really yet to be done for packaged food products. For instance, local continues to be a huge area, but where does it intersect with “clean” or sustainably-farmed and packaged? There is no standard.
All-natural is under attack by a litigating group winning big settlements on products which can be found to be not-quite-perfectly natural.
Organic products are still shipped long distances from other parts of the world in recyclable (in some instances) but not “recycled” petroleum-based packaging. Ninety-five percent of salad greens (and the majority of the organic supply) is grown in California and Arizona where there is essentially no water, so other nearby states are drained to grow a product which is mostly water (by weight) and shipped back across the country.
- There is an increasing demand by consumers that companies be transparent so their claims for quality and social impact can be evaluated.
- This is the new order. The internet, corporate scandals, food-born illnesses and third-world workforce tragedies have heightened consumer skepticism around claims and has dramatically increased consumer expectation regarding the availability of information.
Aided by investigative and expositive journalism ranging from 60 minutes to WikiLeaks to Consumer Reports and Ralph Nader, the baby boomers and all the younger generations behind them want the straight scoop.
Activist consumers lead the way but the press does a good job of magnifying their voice. "Greenwashing" is a term in common usage today that didn’t even exist 15 years ago.
Consumer word-of-mouth today is magnified by social media. It is very easy for the members of your target audience to share likes, share questions and share concerns with each other. Consumers want to believe companies are doing social good, but they aren't willing to accept that on faith.
- There is increasing interest in whole-planet-and-people systems thinking in product design.
- This is just in its infancy, but budding signs are appearing throughout the consumer products space, not just in food. As with other consumer activism, food entrepreneurs tend to be among the pioneers. Cradle-to-grave thinking and life cycle analysis are becoming common ways of thinking about what we produce and how we use it.
No one has yet developed a truly sustainable way to package and ship food. And there is plenty to support the view that part of the mess we have created has come from the demand side not just the technology employed to feed the beast.
Companies like Stonyfield Farms are pressing really hard to find sustainability logic and solutions to maintain attractiveness to more environmentally-demanding customers. The company introduced a product this month that delivers yogurt in a fully-edible casing, which theoretically can reduce the amount of packaging because more of the packaging will in itself be edible. It is called WikiCells.
It may still be a long way from economic viability. But thanks to pioneers like Gary Hirschberg, these "crazy" ideas sometimes get to market and eventually make sense.
- Consumers are demanding that better science on nutrition and wellness be built into product development.
Consumers are becoming much more sophisticated about the industrial food complex and are finally tying together fears about global warming and about decreasing bio-diversity and increasing diseases that are particularly hitting the United States, like obesity and certain kinds of cancer and autoimmune issues and food allergies and asthma. Consumers are tying all these things together and are beginning to get that it's somewhat connected with the food that we're eating and it's not just about whether we, individually, are imbibing these chemicals, but whether our planet is being mismanaged.
- There is increasing integration of health-product design with healthy-planet packaging.
- It makes less and less commercial sense to offer a “better for you” product in a “bad for the planet” package.
It is still the status quo, but I predict this will be changing. Previously unheard of schemes for penalizing producers of trash and creating incentives for recyclers and composters are popping up in many states and cities. Laws recently passed in the New England states to require composting of all food waste will transform the availability of infrastructure for alternative delivery systems.
Perhaps someday it will be unthinkable to market a product that is “healthier to eat” that isn’t also a healthier solution for the planet.
- More experiential values are driving product development for packaged goods.
- In what ways do food products involve us in a larger community or provide platforms for connecting with other people with similar values? In what ways do mission-driven brands deliver something beyond the thing which is consumed and which has an impact at the personal level?
We are living in an age of identity group connectivity and that is driven by a hunger for more meaningful experiences. Consumers want more from their product choices ... especially Millennials.