Food companies that want to continue to grow can no longer ignore social, political, and environmental values. Among the research that shows consumers make decisions based on these values is a 2018 L.E.K. Consulting survey that found consumers increasingly look for nuanced claims related to ethics.

Another recent survey by Crestline Promotional Products further supports the prevalence of value-based consumer decisions. In a survey of 2,121 people in 25 major U.S. cities, 68.3% of consumers said they want “to support companies that share their social, political, and environmental values.” Only 9.4% were uninterested in companies’ values. The following graphic shows the distribution of responses.

Consumer opinions about corporate ethics

Responses across demographics

Sex, politics, education, and geography all affected responses, but age did not:

  • Women care more about ethics than men (women’s average score: 3.81; men: 3.67).
  • People who identify as liberal care more than those who identify as conservative (liberals: 3.90; conservatives: 3.64).
  • Higher education correlated more concern about corporate ethics (graduate school: 3.87; “some college”: 3.77; high school: 3.55).
  • Geographically, residents of Seattle-Tacoma and New York City care the most (3.91), while New Orleans residents care the least (3.52).
  • Generation Z, Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers all care equally.

Note that even those who care the least still aren’t neutral. More than two-thirds of respondents agree that corporate ethics are important.

What issues matter most?

The Crestline survey was across the CPG spectrum. However, most of the issues asked about in the survey apply directly to the food industry. Perhaps surprisingly, given how much attention they receive in the food media, non-GMO and organic were the two least looked-for claims. But the results do support the “clean label” trends of antibiotic/hormone free and no artificial ingredients.

Responses to many issues varied significantly depending on a person’s political views. For example, conservatives were more concerned about GMOs than liberals and also far more likely to look for “made in America.” Liberals were more concerned than conservatives about fair trade and cruelty-free/not tested on animals.

The following graphic shows what mattered most to respondents.

What corporate ethical issues matter most to consumers

Consumers are both committed and fatigued

The survey results suggest that consumers are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Most people said they regularly spend up to 10% more for products that are ethically produced, better for the environment, or made by a company that shares their values. The motivation for doing so? “I believe it makes a difference,” said 63%, while 37% said, “It makes me feel good.”

On the flip side, the survey also some compassion fatigue among consumers. Almost half (45.1%) said they often wish they could buy products without feeling guilty or being judged. Regardless of that desire, 81.8% of people also said they want to know if a company making one of their favorite products is engaging in unethical behavior or doing something controversial.