An emerging issue for the food industry around the world, sustainability is impacting manufacturers and suppliers.

A report from the group Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF), “Driving Sustainability,” finds an overwhelming 82% of food companies surveyed in the U.K. regard sustainability as increasingly important. However, perhaps more telling is how those companies approach sustainability: only 19% monitor the sustainability of the products they source.

The March 2013 report, which surveyed nearly 1,000 representatives from across the food industry, found 47% of respondents either “agreed” or “agreed strongly” that their company should take sustainability more seriously, with 66% seeking improvements to the integrity of their supply chains through better traceability and oversight. What is prompting the attention to sustainability? According to 48% of those surveyed, it is in response to rising consumer demand.

Here in the U.S., nearly 70% of consumers said they consider sustainable production when selecting food products, per a 2010 United Soybean Board survey.

More recently -- in February 2013 to be precise -- National Public Radio (NPR) teamed with Truven Health Analytics to poll 3,000 adults across the U.S. about sustainability specifically in the area of seafood. Of those Americans who regularly consume fish, 80% say it is “important” or “very important” that the seafood they buy is caught using sustainable methods. (“Sustainable” had a two-part definition: still being plentiful for future generations and caught using methods that did minimal harm to other animals in the sea.)

The NPR-Truven survey also found “sustainable” as a label claim may well coincide with something of a healthier image, and it all centers around the perception that these products are caught in the wild. Some 52% of those surveyed regard wild-caught fish or seafood as having more health benefits than other types of fish.

Those consumers also appear willing literally to put their money where their mouth is, as about a quarter of respondents said they would pay up to 10% more for sustainable seafood, while 22% indicated they would pay a 10-20% premium for products they believed to be sustainably caught. The 20% premium would appear to be the limit, however, as only 3% indicated they would pay more than that for sustainably caught seafood.

Interestingly, seafood that has been sustainably caught has the appearance of higher quality across almost all demographics; 95% of respondents indicated sustainably caught seafood was “important” or “very important” in demonstrating the product was of high quality. For that matter, 60.5% of all respondents had the “very important” opinion.

When dining in a restaurant, more than 60% of consumers were “somewhat” or “very likely” to choose one product instead of another simply due to a label indicating the product was sustainable. A separate poll (of 1,000 consumers by the Sustainable Restaurant Association) found such a label might impact the amount consumers spent in a restaurant; more than half said they would be prepared to pay a premium for their meal if they knew the restaurant was investing in reducing its environmental impact, while 43% would be willing to pay as much as 10% more for a meal in a sustainable restaurant.

Recognizing the importance of sustainability in particular to seafood consumers, CEOs of the global farmed salmon industry have launched an industry-led initiative, the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), to unite 15 global farmed salmon producers committed to greater industry cooperation and transparency. GSI is concentrating its efforts on three priority areas: biosecurity, feed sourcing and meeting industry standards.

The repercussions of these efforts could be widespread, suggests Dr. Jason Clay, senior vice president of Market Transformation for World Wildlife Fund (WWF): "This is a game-changer,” he says. “The salmon sector working together and embracing sustainability is going to radically change aquaculture -- and affect the food industry in a big way.”

Of course, sustainability issues impact the industry beyond aquaculture. In fact, Kellogg has announced it is working with Louisiana State University to promote sustainable growing methods. Launched in 2012, the Kellogg's Rice Master Grower program is “a voluntary program designed to help growers adopt good agronomic practices, encourage sustainable growing methods, and understand the connection between sustainability and profitability,” per the company.

 The benefits are twofold: "One goal of the Rice Master Grower program is to strengthen long-term environmental benefits and economic well-being among farmer communities," said Diane Holdorf, Kellogg chief sustainability officer. In addition, she notes, "the Master Grower program helps to ensure a continuous supply of rice for Kellogg foods, as well as drive environmental improvements in rice production."

According to research conducted by McKinsey & Co. specifically for the Global Sustainability Summit in August 2013, consumer requests and inquiries regarding sustainability do make an impact. When one customer has inquired about sustainability, supplier compliance was at 15-20%; two customers resulted in 50% compliance; and when three customers inquired, supplier compliance was 75-80%.

It is a model that seems to have turned the classic line from Field of Dreams on its ear and into “If they come, we will build it.” pf