Eighty-nine percent of consumers in the United States are participating in the world of sustainability, according to new research from The Hartman Group.

Tamara Barnett presented the group's new findings during the Truitt Bros. Northwest Discovery Tour session, Marketing Sustainability.

Of those 89 percent, 13 percent are core consumers to the practice of sustainability. This year, that core group – referred to as the sustainability leaders and trendsetters – are more concerned than in the past about local and community issues.

In consumers' minds, not only is how they practice sustainability changing, but so is the definition.

"There are a lot of different definitions floating around and the definition from a consumer perspective is evolving. Literal definitions are losing their prominence as people are becoming more familiar with the term," Barnett said. "What has risen is responsible farming methods as a more meaningful way to describe what sustainability is."

Terms coming to the surface are tied to an overarching theme of reciprocity, something consumers are looking for more in regard to sustainability. Key words are tied to the themes of social, economic, environmental and personal benefits. Words include simple, fresh, integrity, honesty, partnership, clean, authentic, pure, safe, cooperation, open and value.

However, sustainability in foodservice is tied primarily to energy and waste management, which are relevant and important, but also are narrowly focused. In consumers' minds, the most important aspect of sustainability is food quality, something restaurants are not effectively participating in or communicating, Barnett said.

"The opportunity in foodservice is really to round out that approach (to sustainability) and put more meat added to the bones to connect sustainability cues with quality cues in food," she said.

For restaurant operators, it's also about using the physical environment to convey sustainability and emphasizing personal connections.

While the environmental cues are important, consumers look at fresh foods first followed by high quality control/standards and that complies with all government hygiene regulations, according to Hartman Group research.

So for operators, sustainability needs to meet with wellness, personal emphasis and quality.

"So we see this intersection between health and wellness and sustainability," Barnett said.

From a foodservice company standpoint, roughly two-thirds of the nation's restaurateurs have a recycling program put in place. But the most important factor influencing a dining decision was that a restaurant took an initiative to protect the environment, said Ruth Coyne, group account director with Noble.

"Food sourcing really contributes a lot to how sustainable your operation is," she said.

Overarching themes in relation to sustainability include sustaining care of the Earth's resources, buying local, care and humane treatment of animals, simplicity, and reducing, recycling and reusing.

Restaurants that communicate their message well include Chipotle, Boloco, Moe's Southwest Grill and McDonald's.

"Use any method at your disposal to get your word out," Coyne said.

Operations involved in the humane care and treatment of animals include Wolfgang Puck and those that practice the use of simple ingredients include EVOS, Yum! Brands, Tender Greens and Baja Fresh.

EVOS is a chain that has "embraced this pretty fully," Coyne said.

For those restaurants that practice certification and practices, Coyne said operators and those certification organizations need to do a better job of marketing what those certifications mean.

"We need to market that further so operators understand that symbol, so consumers can start to understand that symbol and they can feel good about it," she said.

Click here to read more about sustainability.

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