a person's arms pictured sitting at a dinner table with a variety of food on the table
Food & Nature Digest The global market analysis takes a closer look at environmental sustainability in the food, beverage and agricultural sectors. © Louis Hansel


The Food Industry Is Leaning Into Sustainability—But Consumers Still Want More

Amidst the global pandemic, new market analysis shows sustainability is now table stakes for the food, beverage and agriculture sectors

The images of pandemic-driven disruptions to our food systems in early 2020 are still fresh: shipping containers full of uninspected food, fields strewn with overripe produce, shuttered meatpacking plants and distraught farmers and ranchers facing unprecedented uncertainty. Those of us fortunate to take fully stocked grocery shelves for granted most of the time confronted a hard lesson in food supply chain resilience and sustainability.

But these distribution bottlenecks in moving food from farm to table pale in comparison to the environmental risks facing the sector, and new research shows consumers and industry stakeholders share a desire for transformation.

A recent global analysis conducted by Edelman Data x Intelligence on behalf of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) takes a closer look at the environmental sustainability commitments of the food, beverage and agricultural sectors. Here are four key takeaways from the September 2020 survey of industry leaders, employees and consumers across eight major markets.


1. There’s a resounding call to “do good”—not just avoid harm.

Our survey results indicate that both the industry and consumers broadly agree on the meaning of food sector sustainability, with the majority of each segment surveyed upholding that true sustainability requires actively doing good for the planet. Across the board, respondents said the food sector must strive to go beyond the traditional imperative to “do no harm.” While some environmental degradation may have been understood as necessary to feeding a growing population in the past, there is now a growing expectation and enthusiasm for a regenerative, nature-positive food system.

Percent Who Agree it’s More Important to “Do Good” Rather Than “Do No Harm”

graphic showing three bar charts representing the report's three audiences, all hovering around sixty pecent


What are regenerative food systems? (2:53) How can regenerative food systems heal the planet and feed the world? We can produce food that doesn't just avoid harm, but actively restores nature and reverses previous damage. Regenerative food systems can ensure we’re able to feed many generations to come. Here's what this looks like.

2. Environmental risks are a top concern for industry leaders.

Companies within the food, beverage and agriculture sectors have been plagued by competing priorities in 2020—supply chain breakdowns, global trade concerns, and employee safety, to name just a few. And yet decision makers in these sectors report that environmental risk factors outrank operational concerns globally. The long-term impacts of climate change on crop production, concerns related to water scarcity and quality, and the threat of land degradation are top of mind for these business leaders—even more than the clear and present risks of pandemics and disease. As one of the sectors most reliant on nature—and demanding of its services—this recognition is encouraging and represents an opportunity for immediate progress.

Top Food System Risks to Food, Beverage & Agriculture Companies

graphic showing top three global risks as water quality, climate change, and pandemics, with breakdown of eight countries top three risks belowReporting: % Selected (Up to 3 Max)


3. The industry is leading investments in a green recovery.

As one of the few sectors that did not see devastating impacts to sales as a result of the pandemic, food, beverage and agriculture has already begun taking action to spur a green recovery, with 55 percent of business leaders surveyed reporting increased levels of investment in environmental sustainability.

Shifts in Resource Allocation, Past 6-10 Months

bar chart showing fifty-five percent of businesses allocating more money to sustainabilityReporting: % Selected


4. Many consumers want more—and place a high value on sustainability.

Even with the sector increasing investments, many of the consumers they serve believe companies should make faster progress toward a nature-positive food system, according to our survey. What’s more, a Van Westendorp analysis found that consumers  recognize significant value in products that support sustainability initiatives, reportedly tolerating up to a 36 percent increase in the optimal price point over standard goods.  Translating customer intention into action is more complex than changing the sticker on a store shelf. But, the data is clear: there is a value proposition inherent to sustainability.

Van Westendorp Analysis

A Van Westendorp analysis discovered that informed consumers expectations increased across all price-points, including bargain level pricing 67% (A), premium-level pricing 43% (C), and the “optimal” price point 36% (B). 

a line graph of overlapping values that represent changing consumer perceptions at different price points

Based on “Sustainable” Basket of Goods Compared to the
 “Standard” Basket of Goods (split-cell testing)


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This broad alignment among industry stakeholders and informed consumers on the right path forward for the food, beverage and agriculture sector points to a big opportunity at a crucial time. The pandemic has only intensified pressure on the industry to strive for greater resilience and sustainability, but it has also afforded a position of financial strength. The next steps will be path defining for the sector, consumers and the planet—and these findings show that those who use 2020 to invest in a nature-positive transition could have much of the market on their side.


Food & Nature Digest: Accelerating the Green Recovery

The global market analysis takes a closer look at environmental sustainability in the food, beverage and agricultural sectors.