August 3, 2016

How to talk about Sustainability

In our culture’s evolving society, more communication avenues are emerging, allowing food-eaters to share about their food and desiring to know how it was raised. The ‘sustainability movement’ amongst consumers has caused a myriad of definitions of the term that farmers and ranchers have been ‘sustaining’ since the beginning of time.

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) has been conducting research on consumers’ perceptions of agriculture since 2011 in an effort to earn consumer trust in American food and agriculture. Along with conducting annual research, they aim to ensure the voices of farmers and ranchers are presented in influential conversations about food and agriculture where they can make a positive impact.

Sustainability and Consumer Perceptions

Most recently, USFRA’s research focused specifically about sustainability and consumer perceptions; conducting online interviews, surveying a total of 1,000 consumers. This perception survey provided benchmark results and explored opinions on farming and ranching based on two key types of consumers: general consumers and consumer food connectors. General consumers included: millennials; parents; non-parents; or general consumer population. Consumer food connectors included: educated consumers with a strong interest in politics and government policy; highly-engaged food influencer that others turn to for information about their food; make all household decisions and purchases related to food; or engaged in food advocacy activities.

When it comes to specifically talking about sustainability, USFRA found that terms like, “water, soil, air and habitat” resonate the most with both general consumers and consumer food connectors.

The 2016 Food and Health Survey, conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), found that consumers consider sustainability more in their decisions to buy food and beverages than just a year ago, and seven in ten consumers think it is important that the food products are produced in a sustainable way. Both USFRA and IFIC’s surveys showed that agriculture’s impact on humans is always top of mind for consumers. They want to improve their health, as well as their families, through access to safe, nutritious food and want to have a positive impact on their local community.

But are consumers equating “producing nutritious, safe and high-quality food” to “sustainability”? Obvious enough, sustainability can mean different things to different people. USFRA found that consumers define sustainability with terms such as: environmentally responsible, integrity, ethical, accountable for actions, trustworthy, supporting local communities and social responsibility.

Even more interesting, half of the consumers polled with USFRA could not state what sustainability meant to them, although they say it is important. It needs to be farmers and ranchers responsibility to define sustainability for them.

Defining What We Do As Sustainable

Farmers and ranchers keep future generations top of mind. We love talking about being a third or fourth-generation farmer while bringing in the fifth generation. Doing more with less is part of being good stewards of the land. We talk about our sustainable practices, but we don’t always convey or define what we are doing is actually sustainability. Consumers, food connectors and media alike are hijacking this concept that food producers have been doing for hundreds of years and making it their own. Much of the language the agriculture industry uses today gives consumers unnecessary anxiety, simply because they don’t understand what it means. We have an opportunity to turn terms and phrases that are perceived as negative, into positives.

For example, when we talk about pesticides, explain that they prevent bugs and other pests from eating crops – that’s sustainable. By taking time to explain the term from our perspective, we will be squelching the negative perception in the food-eaters’ eyes.

Transparency Leads to Sustainability

Based on consumer perceptions, transparency is king when it comes to making food-purchasing decisions. Food connectors find it extremely important to know about where the food was grown or raised where price was the number one importance for general consumers.

To help tell this agriculture-sustainability story, USFRA recommends that farmers and ranchers:

  • Keep in mind that sustainability is an inherent part of your business. Keep the future generations top of mind and communicate that doing more with less is part of being good stewards of the land. Sustainability means smart business practices.
  • Make sustainability relatable. Communicate that you are making it better for the future versus defining success of the past. Connect your audience to who you are and not just what you do, and associate with shared values.
  • Use language that resonates. Water, soil, air and habitat; improving the environment around my farm; limiting impact; improving human health; access to safe and nutritious food; efficient use of land; more with less; using new technologies – equipment and software; making business more profitable through sustainability; sustainable food is affordable food.

More than ever, now is the time to be transparent about what you do. People don’t need a checklist on each “hot issue.” But they do want relevant and true pieces of information about where their food comes from and where it was raised. Take advantage of opportunities to deliver factual information about how food was grown and raised across the supply chain, and share information whether it’s superior or not. Coffee shop conversations, church lunches, social media interactions – all of these venues will make an impact if you start telling your story and most importantly, relating it to sustainability.

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