The demand for sustainable products and the value of third-party certification is growing

by Courtney Llewellyn

“The conversation has to start with acknowledgment that consumer interest in this has only gotten more intense in the 20 years since ‘Fast Food Nation,’” said Matthew Buck, director of Food Alliance, an organization that certifies agricultural operations, food processors and distributors to promote sustainability in agriculture and the food industry. He presented on the demand for sustainable products and their certification during this year’s CiderCon.

The cultural shift in the way people think about and value food has been noted in numerous marketing research studies. Per the International Food Information Council Foundation, seven in 10 Millennials consider whether food and beverages are produced in an environmentally sustainable way. FMI’s “The Future of Food: New Realities for the Industry” noted nearly nine in 10 Millennials say they’re more likely to buy from companies that support solutions to specific social issues. And that “woke” market continues to grow.

“Foods that tell a story or offer additional benefits are increasingly preferred by consumers,” Buck said, quoting research from Kalsec – and that includes cider, wine, beer, mead and more. If they’re made via “sustainable agriculture,” which includes everything from locally grown crops to family farms to a lack of GMOs, then producers can profit. The natural and organic industry was poised to hit $252 billion in 2020, and if projections hold, the market will hit $300 billion by 2023.

But promises from producers and actual practices are two separate things. Buck broke down the different product claims that can be made. A first party claim is a promise from a producer; it’s up to the buyer to evaluate that promise and see if it’s meaningful. A second party claim is often issued by the industry or a trade or membership association. It may list production guidelines, but there is no independent verification. “The gold standard is a third party claim,” Buck said. These are claims verified by an independent auditor. There are a variety of certification programs available addressing a wide range of issues, but they share certain characteristics – traceability, transparency and accountability (sources, standards and whether those standards have been met).

Buck has a strong preference for independent organizations, then government programs, then industry organizations for certification. Food Alliance began in 1993 via a collaboration between Oregon State University, Washing State University and the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Their first farm was certified in 1998 – apples produced by Walter Wells and Sons in Oregon. They now certify farms throughout North America. Food Alliance certification verifies farms provide safe and fair working conditions, conserve soil and water resources, protect and enhance wildlife habitat and biodiversity, reduce pesticide use and toxicity and continually improve management practices.

“Sustainability is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must’ to be competitive in the global marketplace,” Buck stated.

So how can producers share their sustainable story? First, be truthful. Don’t make claims that are likely to be misinterpreted. Don’t overstate the benefits of your goods (and avoid implying benefits if the benefit is negligible.)

Secondly, consider getting certified. Doing so means producers can credibly differentiate and add value to their products; commercial buyers can screen for sustainable purchasing; investors can screen for sustainable investing; stakeholders receive information and assurance; and consumers get great products, authentic stories and their values match with those they’re purchasing from.

Want to learn more? Check out the Food Alliance Farm Application for certification and a study of the “Life Cycle Assessment of the Hard Apple Cider Production System.”