Comment: Sustainability not understood by consumers

The whole quest for ‘sustainable’ agriculture was dealt a blow this week, with research showing that, quite simply, consumers don’t understand the lingo.

Bord Bia has built its Origin Green campaign around sustainability. It says that Ireland is a country well suited to sustainability: our climate is temperate and our lush, green countryside is perfect for farming. The Irish food and drink sector, it says, has mobilised around its commitment to sustainability on our farms and in our food processing companies through Bord Bia’s Sustainability Development Programme, Origin Green.

It has gone as far as to employ actress Saoirse Ronan to tell us that we have just borrowed the world from our children and that the world is hungry for food sustainability.

Don’t get me wrong, I think sustainable agriculture is a necessity. But it seems the message around sustainability has not reached the end consumer. So, while the global demand for meat is expected to increase by 60% over the coming years, it seems unlikely that much of this demand will encompass a demand for ‘sustainably produced’ meat. The research says that consumers simply don’t understand what sustainability is all about. It asked about four different environmental tags, including the well-known ‘Fair Trade’ and found that sustainability labels currently do not play a major role in consumers’ food choices.

According to the research, the more consumers are concerned about sustainability issues with regard to food production, the higher is also the level of use of sustainability labels. However, the effects are not strong and the low level of use is not due to a correspondingly low level of concern about sustainability issues related to food.

The researchers are right – sustainability is an abstract term and consumers may have difficulty relating to it. The bottom line for consumers and farmers is price and that will remain the key driver of demand and supply for the foreseeable future and sustainability is a nice idea but not a key driver of demand.