Generation Z, Sustainable Purchasing And the Connection with Agriculture

Originally printed in the July 2021 issue of Produce Business.

As our natural food systems weaken and no longer seem able to deliver what is expected, we look for ways to change its trajectory. Gradually we begin to understand that one of the major causes of unsustainability in the food systems is not only production but also ‘irresponsible’ consumption.

Our food seems cheap, but only because the price does not reflect the actual costs. Deforestation, soil erosion and water scarcity are clear examples. Knowing the adverse effects involved in our global food system, how can we meet the demand while reducing the impacts and become more sustainable? Great impact can only be achieved by working together. The time for consumer involvement in sustainable food provision is undoubtedly here.

It is intriguing to notice that on the consumer side, Generation Z (Gen Z) consumers (born between 1997 and 2012) already represent about 40% of the market. Their purchasing power will continue to grow exponentially. But what truly characterizes Gen Z consumers? These consumers were born and raised in an era bursting with technology; they are tech-savvy, community-oriented, innovative and creative (Priporas, Stylos, & Fotiadis, 2017; Su, Tsai, Chen, & Lv, 2019). For them, food is something more than body fuel and flavor; for them, food is becoming a choice of value and lifestyle.

In addition, Generation Z consumers have a deep concern for the environment and tend to prioritize health. This has led to sustainability no longer being a possibility but rather a requisite. Consumers from this generation see consumption as an expression of individual identity, they are willing to pay for products that represent causes they believe in and can identify themselves with.

Gen Z consumers are known for their high ‘involvement’ with sustainable products and their willingness to purchase them (Petro, 2020). Despite this, consumers’ willingness to purchase sustainable products does not fully translate into their behavior yet (Joshi & Rahman, 2015): though 70% of consumers have a positive attitude toward sustainable food, in practice only 10% purchase it. Why do consumers who affirm to be sustainably oriented show unsustainable consumption patterns?

How can we reconnect the consumer with the food system and create more awareness about sustainability in the food sector?

A research project that I recently participated in on behalf of the Sustainable Rice Platform showed that most of the Gen Z consumers’ literacy in relation to sustainable food is too low. This generation has a tremendous disconnection between food production and consumption. Soon after industrialization (and even more after the era of globalization), with increasing trade, processing, and long distribution channels, food production became invisible for us as consumers.

In earlier days, food was locally grown and consumed, and food trust was based on personal relationships. This is no longer the case. Now, consumers mostly ignore the origin of their food, which is mostly produced and processed by large companies. This disconnection has increased the lack of trust in food. Consumers who see only a label in food do not see what actually occurs in the country of production or processing.

At the same time, most retailers and companies have opted for communicating sustainability in the form of a label. However, a simple logo that says ‘produced sustainably’ does not do the job for this generation. As Gen Z, we are not bewitched by abstract symbols. Generation Z consumers want to have quick and easy access to information. This is not the case currently, as most companies still need to place a lot more effort in becoming more transparent.

Transparency requires an investment by any company. Yet becoming more transparent is currently turning into a competitive advantage. Generation Z consumers are turning away from companies focused on short-term monetary benefits. They are becoming more attracted to companies whose focus lays on the long-term benefits of sustainability in order to meet the consumers’ preferences. Becoming more transparent and sustainable will pay back in the future. Sustainability (and the transparency related to it) will undoubtedly become mainstream soon.

How can we reconnect the consumer with the food system and create more awareness about sustainability in the food sector? The interest is already there; we just need the right tools to convey the message. Since technology and online platforms are an integral part of the daily lives of Generation Z consumers, it would be optimal to use those tools to further educate and engage with the consumer. Improved knowledge will ultimately increase their intention for sustainable purchasing.

Some of the most used platforms by Generation Z consumers are Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. If companies take advantage of such platforms to teach the consumers agricultural insights and talk about the sustainability characteristics and components of their products, they can recreate a new connection with the consumer and food production. 

Laura Rodriguez Arguedas is an international food and agribusiness student at the HAS University for Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. She is an intern of PRODUCE BUSINESS author Nic Jooste.