Only a third of U.S. consumers consider “climate-friendliness” when shopping at the grocery store, a new survey finds. Environmental sustainability lags far behind taste, price, healthfulness and convenience for the 11th year in a row, according to this year’s consumer research from the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
The number of self-reported vegans and vegetarians remained steady — but climate change is hitting new lows as a motivator for purchasing sustainable food products. That tracks with other discouraging news — a new poll released by Newsweek finds 40 percent of Americans don’t believe eating less red meat would lower carbon emissions. On the other hand — flexitarianism appears to be rising.
Surveys like these are not infallible, of course. People may self-report more ethical, healthy or sustainable behavior while behaving quite differently in private. Still, measuring responses over time can be a useful tool in gauging change in consumer attitudes and behavior.
Consumers Are Caring Less About the Planet
Only 12 percent of respondents to the IFIC survey said they follow a dietary plan based on environmental sustainability, down from 21 percent last year. The number of individuals indicating sustainability as a top motivator in food purchases is also down by six points.
It’s a worrisome trend. The meat industry accounts for between 11 and 19.6 percent of all global emissions, and reducing meat consumption is considered by scientists to be one of the best ways for an individual to fight climate change. Despite this, media coverage of animal agriculture’s impact on the environment is disproportionately low – just half a percent of all climate coverage.
While only about one in ten respondents in the IFIC survey said they follow a diet based on climate impact, 35 percent of consumers said they make purchases based on a food’s climate-friendliness.
Yet it’s hard to know what that actually looks like in the grocery cart. Consumers may be reducing their meat intake but they might just be buying meat with “sustainable” labels instead — marketing claims that are largely unregulated, or don’t mean what consumers assume.
Plant-Based Diets Steady, Flexitarianism Rising
Just eight percent of survey respondents identified as either vegan, vegetarian or plant-based. That finding is consistent with a 2019 survey from Gallup with a similar sample size, which also reported that eight percent of Americans are vegan or vegetarian — a number that has remained mostly consistent over the years.
On the other hand, flexitarianism, which promotes reducing but not eliminating meat consumption, appears to be on the rise. According to the survey, 11 percent of respondents identified as either flexitarian or a low-carbon dieter, up from seven percent last year.
Even as the number of vegans remains low, half of the respondents said they believe animal welfare is important when making food choices. Still, these attitudes aren’t translating to major shifts in consumer purchasing decisions. The reality is that 99 percent of farmed animals in the U.S. are still raised on factory farms, despite very small incremental welfare improvements, like Prop 12 in California.
More Plants, Fewer Plant-Based Burgers
Americans don’t seem to be ditching meat either — at least not all meat. The survey found 23 and 32 percent of respondents said they eat less dairy and red meat now, respectively, with more than a quarter of this year’s survey participants saying they now eat more “proteins from whole-plant sources.”
On the other hand, 40 percent of respondents said they never consume plant-based meat and fish alternatives, while more than a quarter said they’re eating more chicken. Growth in chicken consumption as red meat sales lag has long been a trend in the U.S., and there’s evidence that chicken companies are now doubling down on efforts to market to climate-conscious consumers. At least according to the IFIC data, that strategy seems to be working.
Inflation’s Impact on Food Choices
Price is a major barrier for climate-conscious eating. Only 16 percent of IFIC respondents said they would pay top dollar for an eco-friendly product, while 49 percent would pay only a little extra for sustainable foods. This is in line with recent data showing 60 percent of Americans wouldn’t pay extra money for an environmentally-friendly product.
Even though fewer people are factoring the climate into their purchases, they may still be eating more plant-based foods due to another factor: inflation. In the survey, 91 percent of people said they are noticing that prices are higher than last year, with a large majority noticing a major increase.
Many of the most climate-intensive foods, like red meat, are also relatively expensive compared to more sustainable forms of protein, like legumes, tofu or seitan. Sustainable diets are actually cheaper in most of the Western world, including in the United States, according to an economic analysis from Oxford University. Inflation may be inadvertently causing a shift away from expensive red meats and towards cheaper (and more sustainable) plant-based options.
The Bottom Line
Scientists are in agreement that the world needs to lower its meat consumption in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. But despite incremental boosts of flexitarianism, it appears progress is still sluggish here in the U.S., where we still eat four times more beef than the global average.
Whether American consumers believe it or not, the fact is, eating less meat is crucial to combating climate change. Time will tell whether consumer attitudes are able to catch up to reality in time. If the IFIC survey report is any indication, the rate of progress is a mixed (grocery) bag.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.