Consumers making food choices at the grocery store have long considered taste, price, convenience and nutrition as top considerations when making purchases. Today, there is another contender growing in importance: sustainability.

In particular, the much-talked-about millennial generation is more often making food choices it feels are good for the health of people, animals and the environment. Growing numbers are even willing to pay a premium for some foods that align with their personal values (e.g., grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chickens, non-GMO foods), according to the IRI Consumer Connect Survey (May 2017). Through the Dairy Council of California trends tracking system, we’ve found these values are very powerful human emotions that often trump science when it comes to influencing food choices—and they’re likely to grow in importance to consumers young and old.

This shift can be good news for the dairy industry, which is making significant strides in environmental stewardship, animal care and adherence to values that align with dairy consumers, so much so that we believe it’s time to further engage audiences in the story.

Sustainability is multifaceted, and progress is ongoing

Efforts to improve the sustainability of food production practices, which originally focused primarily on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, have expanded to include factors such as reducing waste, minimizing water usage and using packaging materials that are recyclable or biodegradable.  

For processors and marketers of packaged dairy foods, choosing more sustainable materials and focusing on efforts to reduce food waste are important ways to connect to consumers and customers alike. In addition, there are opportunities to share progress starting at the farm.

Dairy Cares, a California initiative supported by dairy co-ops, farmer families and businesses across dairy communities, is highlighting efforts to conserve water, use energy efficiently and consistently doing more with less. According to Dairy Cares:

U.S. dairy farmers have reduced the overall carbon footprint by 63% over the last 63 years, as documented in a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The FAO also reported that, compared to the global average, American dairy farms emit about 45% less greenhouse gas per unit of milk produced.

Dairy’s water footprint is 65% less over 63 years; in other words, it takes two-thirds less water today to produce a glass of milk than it did in 1944, according to the Journal of American Science.

The multiple facets of sustainability present various opportunities to engage audiences, and Dairy Council of California is exploring ways to broaden the sustainability discussion beyond environmental measures to also include discussions about the nutritional value of foods offered. In one such example, Dairy Council of California worked with the International Dairy Federation and Global Dairy Platform to consolidate information that validated the role of milk and dairy foods in sustainable eating patterns. The result is a research guide that offers talking points to the industry that can be used when challenged that dairy foods’ environmental footprint is too high.

Food stories are being told in social media

While we can take pride in our progress, positive stories about dairy can easily be overshadowed in a world where food and health information is increasingly socialized. Today, anyone can have a social media voice, and the platforms in which to share it are plentiful and growing.

In addition, research shows that consumers often cherry-pick the issues they care about most, forging their own nutritional path based on those issues. They then absorb information that aligns with their worldview. The sheer volume of ideas accessible online and the velocity in which information—whether true or false—can be shared has made it easier for people to gravitate toward media sources that aligns with their personal beliefs.

Many in the agriculture industry can find this disheartening because food stories can be told by those outside the agrifood chain who may not have the knowledge or experience to tell how food gets from the farm to the table. Nonetheless, there is a huge opportunity to bring our expertise to the dialogue. In fact, the socialization of information gives equal voice to all. Those who grow, produce and market food can be a bigger part of the discussion.

Working together will help keep dairy at the forefront

Dairy Council of California is more often including the sustainability story in its efforts. But all of the players—including producers, processors, marketers and industry groups—can help by engaging in constructive dialogue around sustainability. Doing so will help maintain the positive position of dairy in diets for the long term.

The move toward sustainability isn’t going away. In some countries sustainability criteria are being added to the factors used to make dietary recommendations. So far, the United States has not followed suit, although the topic was much debated during development of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The discussion is expected to be re-ignited in the next round of guidelines. So, the time to be proactive with sustainability-related efforts and communication is now.

By engaging in conversations about not only the health benefits of dairy but also its sustainability story, the dairy industry can advance its cause adopted nearly 100 years ago through the Dairy Council of California: to elevate the health of children and parents through the pursuit of lifelong healthy eating habits.