Doesn’t it just feel right to make some sort of declaration with the start of a new calendar year? In the normal world where we as consumers live—some of the most popular declarations (“New Year’s resolutions”) involve foods, drinks and the conscious decision to lose weight. 

This month, I’d encourage industry professionals to pause, reflect and resolve to enhance your brand’s relationship—it’s emotional appeal—to those same consumers. Why? More shoppers are making pointed, conscious decisions to buy—or not buy—based on a growing list of factors.

Remember, it’s not that consumers were “unconscious” before. Oil and petroleum companies Shell and Exxon/Mobile once were targets of consumer boycotts related to both ethics (in 1986, protesting Shell investment in white-controlled South Africa) and the environment (in 1989, protesting the Exxon Valdez oil spill damage to ocean water wild life). Last but not least, consumers’ annual weight loss (health) resolutions also fit the bill here

Yet everything else has changed. When it comes to raising someone’s consciousness, we live in a wired world where it only takes seconds to share social media posts with images and information (truthful, or not). We even have satellites orbiting the earth to photograph and document deforestation in the most remote areas.

So what interests consumers? Prepared Foods’ 2020 Predictions issue in December had many articles about consumers embracing plant-based foods and beverages and a “flexitarian” lifestyle. Bottom line: consumers aren’t necessarily converting to vegetarian or vegan diets—so much as they are making alternative choices for health reasons (reduce meat) or environmental reasons (concern over land, water use).

The NPD Group notes that nine percent of adults consider the environment as a top factor when making food and beverage purchase decisions, and it’s young adults, ages 18-44 years old, who are most likely to feel this way.  

“Marketers need to understand that sustainability can be a deciding factor for consumers,” says Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “While concerns like taste, convenience, health, and affordability are still primary factors for choosing foods and beverages, a company’s sustainability efforts can be the tie breaker if all other factors are equal.”

About the time this issue prints, thousands of you will be walking the aisles of the Specialty Food Association’s (SFA) annual Winter Fancy Food Show. Among SFA’s 2020 predictions is Sustainability-Driven Product Development. According to SFA’s “State of the Specialty Food Industry Report 2019-2020,” consumers, especially Gen Z, are values-oriented shoppers who look at a company’s values and production methods when making purchasing decisions. Upcycled products, those using ingredients that are normally discarded, are becoming more prevalent. Biodynamic farming, a practice that helps sustain the biodiversity and health of the land, also is coming more into focus for consumers.

In its “Sustainability 2019: Beyond Business as Usual report,” researchers for The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., say they recorded a huge shift in how consumers view who is responsible for sustainability—moving that mantle away from individuals and toward government and corporations. 

While consumers (especially younger consumers) seem more willing than ever to change their lifestyles in the name of sustainability, an important shift has occurred in their recognition of the need for collective action and the corresponding limits of individual action on large-scale issues such as waste, pollution and climate change. In this year’s research, asked who bears the most responsibility for making our world more sustainable, 84% of consumers ranked “large companies” as their first, second or third choice (up 4 points from 2013) compared to 58% who cited “individuals” (down a significant 15 points from 2013).

When he opened Prepared Foods’ 2019 New Products Conference, BeyondBrands LLC Founder & CEO Eric Schnell talked about natural and organic foods’ tremendous growth (as evidenced by a booming Natural Products Expo West). Schnell then added that perhaps it’s time to reconsider the entire better-for-you space (even involving everything from deodorant to clothing) and recast it in a new light as “conscious brands.” 

I don’t know where you are in efforts to better connect with “conscious” consumers but taking no action—related to greener packaging, clean label formulating, ingredient sourcing, etc.—represents a step in the wrong direction.