Getting ahead of consumers could get you run over

Tom Karst
National Editor

Sometimes I wonder if the industry is getting too far out ahead of the consumer regarding the issue of “sustainability.”

I think marketers instinctively know that consumers don’t understand the term “sustainable.” A cynic’s view is that trade associations, marketers and “production agriculture” are hoping that they can help mold the meaning of the term in a way that minimizes the negative consumer perceptions of conventional produce.

Marketer to consumer: “You think the term sustainable means organic? Well, you are wrong and let me count the eight ways to Sunday why you are mistaken.”

Calm down, folks.

In my red-state tinted view, consumers aren’t thinking of sustainability all that much. Yes, they would like to think growers are doing their darndest to be kind to the environment, but not many consumers have the ability to take in the nuances of Integrated Pest Management or micro-jet irrigation.

Gen-X Mom Sarah, who I have asked several times now to gather some views from some of her friends on produce issues, relayed these responses from a handful of her friends to some questions I posed.

Have you seen the store you shop at talk about “sustainability” in relation to fruits and vegetables?

Mom A: No.

Mom B: No. I don’t think so. I have heard that term though, but from the media mostly.

How do you rate an issue like “sustainability” compared to other characteristics: price, quality, organic, local, etc.?

Mom A: Not so much.

Mom B: I think it’s very important, and another way to “go green” and recycle. I think it’s just as important as price, quality, organic, and local, and I hope it catches on.

If a grower was practicing sustainability, what would you expect him to be doing?

Mom A: Not sure.

Mom B: Composting, re-planting, throwing away very little, if any, creating hybrids, fair trade, fair wages.

Is it important to know if a grower is “certified” sustainable by a third party?

Mom A: I don’t know.

Mom B: Perhaps, but if it’s like certified organic, which is often misleading, it wouldn’t really matter to me. But it looks good on the package.

Another mom gave answers to Gen-X Mom Sarah in a stream-of-consciousness e-mail:

“As far as sustainability and organic, I have stronger thoughts about it than I actually show when I am purchasing. I would love to buy all products that are grown in sustainable environments and follow good practice of treatment of employees, animals, environment, etc. But when it really comes down to it, price and convenience seems to outweigh the good intentions.

“I certainly buy more organic and sustainable produce in the summer months when it’s more readily available at local markets and the grocery stores that I shop at. Most important to me is freshness. I don’t like buying produce that has been grown in California and sat on a truck for 5-8 days prior to being put on the shelf. In the summer, I tend to buy organic by the ‘dirty dozen rule.’ Things like peaches, celery, berries, peppers, spinach, apples, etc. I don’t ever spend the extra money on organic on things that don’t absorb pesticides at a high rate like watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe, kiwi, oranges, onions, broccoli, asparagus, lemons, limes, etc.

“I have to admit, during the winter months, I buy what is available that our family likes and I don’t really worry about sustainability. I buy grapes from Chile, oranges from Australia, and so on. Basically, what we eat frequently, I purchase wherever I can get it.”

Even for the most socially conscious mom, “price and convenience seem to outweigh good intentions.”

Efforts to create a standard way to measure sustainability are often described as a way to prevent unnecessary duplication of effort and redundancy of audit requirements. Growers don’t want multiple third party audits to showcase their sustainability fitness or lack thereof to their supermarket buyers.

Green talk is cheap.

If retailers want to own the issue of sustainability, they should be willing to pay more for product from marketers who have adopted the greenest technology.

But I think retailers who ramp up demands for expensive record-keeping sustainability measures from growers are on a fool’s errand.

If consumers are truly willing to pay more for produce with higher sustainability scores — as defined by industry, no less — then retailers have a clear path ahead.

Unfortunately, clarifying “sustainability” as a virtue distinct from organic grown, community-supported agriculture programs and locally sourced fruits and vegetables is not easily or cleanly done. Industry, even working elbow to elbow with environmental groups, may not be up to the task of selling a vision of sustainability that truly matters to most consumers.


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