December 10, 2022

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Foodies Will Buy What’s Sustainable Despite Inflation

  • Grocery prices are up 10% from a year ago, but some devoted foodies will keep buying organic.
  • About four in 10 consumers who order takeout are willing to spend more on sustainable to-go options.
  • Shoppers expect organic and are increasingly looking to food for how it can boost their wellness.

For some shoppers, there’s no way in kale they’ll stop buying organic. 

A 10% jump in grocery prices in the past year might keep some consumers from reaching for organic carrots or heirloom tomatoes grown without pesticides. But others, especially Gen Zers and millennials concerned about their health and that of the environment, would continue to buy sustainably produced food as long as they could, experts told Insider. 

Surveys conducted in the US and abroad indicated that some consumers continued to prioritize sustainable goods. In the case of what we eat, that means food perceived as being better for a person’s health, for producers, for animals, or for the planet in general. But to get those benefits, consumers often have to hand over more money in the checkout line. 

Some are willing to: A survey by the market-research firm Euromonitor International showed that about half of consumers across dozens of countries were willing to pay more for sustainable packaged food despite costs that were about 15% higher than that of conventional packaged food.

That motivation extends to getting takeout, too. A survey from Deliverect, a company that helps restaurants manage online orders and delivery, found that 43% of respondents across various countries, including the US, the UK, and Spain, would pay more for to-go food that they considered sustainable. 

There are limits, of course. A survey in Britain and Germany found that just over half of shoppers looked at food labels in search of sustainable attributes. But price was the ultimate factor for about eight in 10 British grocery buyers and about seven in 10 German shoppers. 

Yet for devoted foodies who linger in the organic aisles, there might be no going back to ingredient labels that show additives most people can’t pronounce. Travis A. Smith, an associate professor in agricultural and applied economics at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, told Insider that these shoppers, especially the younger ones, were used to paying higher prices for sustainably produced food, so even the recent run-ups in grocery bills might not scare off those who could afford it.

Smith said the rise of store brands selling organic products in the past 10 to 15 years meant more sustainably produced food was within reach for some budget-conscious shoppers. 

If prices do get too high, consumers are often savvy swappers. Smith said Americans don’t tend to eat a lot of seafood, but that demand in the US has been increasing because prices haven’t risen as much as with beef, for example. Now, he said, the price hikes are pushing some consumers to rethink how they might host a party. “Instead of getting the chicken wings, they’re getting the boiled shrimp or fried shrimp,” he said. 

Consumers don’t just want organic, they want wellness

Darren Seifer, the food and beverage industry analyst for the market-research firm NPD Group, said that during the Great


Recession

of 2007 to 2009, demand for organic plateaued. “When money got tight, organic was one of the original victims,” he said.

But Seifer has witnessed a shift since then in how some consumers study labels. “We’re seeing that it’s not really all about organic,” he said. “Purity is table stakes. That’s our entry. It’s more about what specifically can the food or beverage do for me.” 

These health-conscious consumers are seeking foods that promote gut health or heart health, Seifer said. “In today’s times, does it help me out with immunity, or does it help me out with anxiety?” 

Seifer pointed to rising sales of elderberry and CBD oil. He also cited shoppers’ growing interest in manuka honey, produced in New Zealand and Australia, which is drawing attention for its antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. 

Seifer said demand for sustainable food would likely endure not only because some shoppers are seeking better health but also because younger shoppers, in particular, are considering the needs of the earth.

“The older generations grew up with things like plastic and thought that was just fine. And the younger generations are thinking, ‘OK, we have to live our lives a little bit more sustainably because we can’t keep doing this and expect things to turn out fine.'”