BELOIT, WIS. — Consumers are demanding increased sustainability credentials from their food and beverages, according to a new report from Kerry.

The company surveyed more than 14,000 consumers across 18 countries and found 49% of global consumers consider sustainability attributes when purchasing food and beverages. Sustainability attributes were most important for dairy, meat and their plant-based counterparts and were less important for alcoholic beverages, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.

The survey found the topic of sustainability is rapidly evolving to encompass a wider range of associations and expectations.

“This research has unveiled some really surprising results that have positioned sustainability as a must-have rather than a differentiator among consumers,” said Soumya Nair, insights director at Kerry. “Sustainability-minded consumers are actively seeking out food and beverage products that have a significantly positive impact on the planet as well as on their personal health and well-being, seeking products with clean label claims and locally sourced ingredients.”

Kerry mapped those broadening priorities on a sustainability adoption curve, which highlights how consumers experience sustainability on extrinsic and intrinsic levels. Extrinsic associations such as environmental preservation and sustainable packaging are the first point of contact consumers have with sustainability, while intrinsic associations such as personal health and clean label claims are made by consumers who have matured in their sustainability journey.

The research also uncovered four key consumer archetypes, based on consumer understanding of sustainability and their level of sustainability adoption. Labeled as inactives, passives, followers and frontrunners, these four cohorts sit at different points on the sustainability adoption curve.

Kerry sustainability infographic

Around 40% of North American consumers are frontrunners, meaning they are deeply committed to sustainability and aware of their own impact. They tend to be older millennials who seek to influence manufacturers, brands and public authorities to meet their sustainability needs. Around 30% are followers. Primarily consisting of younger millennials and Gen Z, this cohort is willing to make sustainable food and beverage choices but looks to companies and public institutions to take the lead.

For frontrunners and followers, the top drivers of sustainability with health and nutrition are eating more fruits and vegetables, eating healthy, mental wellness, limiting or reducing sugar, avoiding additives and preservatives, managing weight, healthy aging and avoiding artificial ingredients.

Two in 10 North American consumers fall into the inactive archetype, meaning they care about sustainability attributes but are less likely to consider them when making purchasing decisions. Ten percent are inactives who are not yet conscious of sustainability being a consideration in terms of their food and beverage choices. Lack of information, lack of resources and price are the most common barriers preventing both groups from acting sustainably, according to the report.

Compared to the global average, North American consumers are more than three times as likely to be inactives. They also are less likely to be frontrunners, with nearly half of global consumers falling into the frontrunner archetype, compared to 38% of North American consumers.