How Healthy Foods Can Reflect Sustainable Practices


The modern grocery consumer cares more and more about eating healthy while practicing sustainability; they want fresh and local produce, sustainably sourced meat and fish, environmentally conscious dairy and non-dairy products, and more variety in plant-based products. How does the evolution of food consumption to this stage of higher health awareness reflect attention paid to sustainable practices? How can grocery retailers keep up with both rising trends? Catering to consumers that prefer eco-friendly diets and committing to sustainable operations as a grocer are linked practices. In this blog post, we’ll explore how providing means for consumers to eat healthy can have a positive environmental impact.

Linking Food & The Environment

Sustainability is complex and overarching: It connects almost every aspect of one’s lifestyle to a resulting effect on the planet. It merges the environment, economics, health, and nutrition into one entity; a crisis in one area inevitably affects all the others. With this in mind, we know that food and the environment have always been interconnected. A Harvard School of Public Health resource titled “The Plate and the Planet” points out that what humans put on their “plates has a major impact on the environment. Eating more healthfully and more sustainably go hand-in-hand, meaning we can develop sustainable eating practices that improve our own health while also benefiting the health of the planet.” The food system relies upon the planet, as both grocers and consumers rely upon the food system; to face a challenge in one undoubtedly affects the other. As new practices and technologies emerge in grocery and beyond, food retailers can take intentional action to address both challenges. 

Sustainable Food Supply: Responsibility in Sourcing & Sales

The grocery industry is in a significant position when it comes to responsible production, sourcing, procurement, marketing, and consumption of sustainable foods. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the impact what they consume has on the environment, and are interested in products that are fair trade and sustainably harvested and produced; they want to know where their food is coming from, and if it’s being produced in socially ethical environments. Radio Institute contributors to GreenBiz write that “the food retail sector can both satisfy its customers’ buying preferences and drive more sustainable food production in its supply chain by creating industry-wide product procurement guidelines and partnering with NGOs that focus on these issues.” 

Transparency in food sourcing is a major way for grocery retailers to let consumers know they care about the issue of sustainability at every level of the supply chain. Getting across clearly where the food comes from and how it lessens environmental impact will alert consumers to their own impact upon buying said food. Whole Foods highlights responsibly sourced foods for customers; Roche Bros. partners with digital procurement platform Forager to utilize its “relationships with local farms, artisanal producers, fishers and ranchers to give suppliers more direct access to nearby food retailers” in an effort to increase locally sourced foods; grocers like Giant Food and Stop & Shop pair with the Ocean Disclosure Project (ODP) to voluntarily report their seafood sources. Food retailers being transparent about sustainable sourcing is not just an optional initiative in today’s world: it’s a necessity, and holds both the business and the customer accountable for sustainable choices.

The grocery market has also seen a rapid increase in consumers eating less meat and dairy or entirely eliminating one or both and substituting plant-based or dairy-free alternatives. In a Well & Good article on making healthy and sustainable food choices, Emily Laurence writes that “one of the biggest things people can do for the environment (and their health) is cut back on animal foods.” Animal-based products involve massively resource-intensive processes—especially compared to plant-based foods—which makes purchasing and consuming less meat and dairy a smart, sustainable choice. For consumers who consume less but want what they do consume to be sustainably sourced, clearly labeling meats and dairy products as such is another critical practice when it comes to being transparent about sustainable sourcing.

Marketing Healthy Eating & Sustainability

Marketing a healthy lifestyle—and therefore a sustainable lifestyle—should be accessible and engaging without being overbearing. Take Walmart’s recent efforts to promote healthy eating for families by partnering with the Partnership for a Healthier America in developing the Waffles + Mochi interactive experience. When visitors engage with the culinary adventure experience and earn digital badges, Walmart donates to PHA's Pass the Love campaign, which provides meal kits to families in need. The campaign also serves to inspire families to make fresh and healthy meals, just like Waffles and Mochi do on their Netflix show—the ingredients for which they can buy in-store. "The fact that kids can play to pay forward a meal for a family who needs it,” Courtney Carlson, Walmart's senior vice president of category marketing, said in the announcement, “makes this experience doubly rewarding for all of those who will use it.”

Encouraging healthy eating, donating to nonprofits to benefit the cause of food insecurity, and doing so in a way accessible to children—who will largely impact the future of sustainability in the food system—is the perfect medley of strengths in marketing healthy, sustainable habits. Sustainability campaigns vary widely in subject and execution, but can also be fun, educational, and provide external resources for consumers that go beyond grocery. Sustainability and healthy eating are lifelong practices: A grocer encouraging sustainable consumption will benefit both the planet and business, while allowing the evolved consumer to feel involved in a healthy and impactful choice. 

Helping Consumers Eat Healthy & Live Sustainably

Each individual consumer will approach eating healthy and practicing sustainable habits in a unique way, but some common threads can be drawn and made useful to grocers. Appealing to consumers who want to eat healthy and live sustainably requires, first and foremost, providing them with the tools to do so. Prioritizing planet-friendly sourcing, investing in and stocking eco-friendly brands, and providing a clear roadmap to sustainable products are all things grocery retailers can keep in mind. Keep an eye out for a future blog post expanding on this topic.