Tips for reaching eco-minded gourmet shoppers through sustainability.

A great deal of gourmet brands and products are going the way of organic to invoke sustainability. While this is a positive step, it also saturates the market and makes it difficult for companies to stand out. Products like coffee, tea, chocolate and cheese are interesting because they can move from an everyday pantry item to a fine gourmet selection by focusing on quality and corporate responsibility. But how is sustainability defined in the world of gourmet, and how can your store embrace the definition to attract gourmet customers?

BiodynamicBecause an informed gourmet consumer cares about the details, gourmet products must distinguish themselves. In PWC’s “Future of Grocery Experience Radar 2014,” experts say gourmet and specialty food shoppers are willing to pay a premium for the desired quality. “What he wants is sustainability. He looks for phrases like ‘organic,’ ‘locally sourced’ and ‘non-GMO,’” says the report. “Knowing it was sourced sustainably will make him more apt to place the product in his shopping basket” (1).

For the gourmet shopper, a Biodynamic certification can demonstrate sustainability. Demeter’s Biodynamic standard (an 84-year-old certification) is very demanding, emphasizing not just sustainability, but also regenerative practices, explains Elizabeth Candelario, managing director of Demeter USA, Philomath, OR. “In regenerative agriculture, the intent is not just to farm in a way that is sustainable, but actually enhances soil quality and can capture carbon emissions from the atmosphere,” says Candelario. “Regenerative agriculture builds on the principles and the practices of organic to help soil, farms and communities thrive.”

freyStandards that set Biodynamic apart from USDA Organic include requiring the entire farm to be organic, rather than setting aside a portion of farmland for organic production, making 10% of total acreage a biodiversity preserve (like natural occurring oak groves) and generating fertility on the farm rather than importing it.

In addition, instead of one processing standard for all products, Demeter has 16 separate ones for products like oil, wine, baked goods, meat and dairy. This is especially appealing to marketers of “gourmet” food. “The intention behind all the processing standards is to allow for the integrity of the ingredients to define the finished product,” explains Candelario. “It is a real ‘foodie’ standard, certainly one that can be considered to have the highest chance of delivering a true gourmet product.”

To the gourmet shopper, Biodynamic is not only going to mean sustainability, but also impeccable quality worth paying for. For this reason, says Candelario, it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s finest wines are Biodynamic. While Biodynamic agriculture is only burgeoning in the United States, the country’s wine industry was an early adopter of the Biodynamic standard. “We now have almost 80 certified Biodynamic vineyards and wineries, third in the world after France and Italy,” says Candelario.

Wine connoisseurs, with their knowledge and discerning palates, are gourmet consumers worth tapping into, given their crossover potential into chocolate and cheese. Even if your store does not sell alcohol, a sophisticated cheese selection will earn you the patronage of wine connoisseurs looking to pair their recent wine purchase with the right cheese. Well-curated cheese platters will also be a great selling point for gourmet consumers who enjoy entertaining guests. The same goes for chocolate, which demands quality from the wine connoisseur.

In Europe, the influence of this trend is more widespread, with thousands of Biodynamic products and Biodynamic farms representing 10% of organic farmland in Germany. But Biodynamic products are gaining traction in the United States, with an increasing number of organic brands releasing Biodynamic products, particularly with the help of Whole Foods Market.

In an effort to increase Biodynamic agriculture in the United States, Demeter and Whole Foods Market have developed a partnership to raise consumer awareness by encouraging brands to release more Biodynamic products. “Whole Foods’ nationwide commitment to the development and distribution of Biodynamic products has given leading organic food companies the confidence and support they need to bring Biodynamic products to store shelves,” explains Candelario on the Whole Foods Market website. “This, in turn, provides encouragement to farmers to transition their farms to this highest form of sustainable farming.”

The Big PictureWhile organic products demonstrate sustainability in agriculture, the term “sustainability” encompasses much more. “Sustainability is a big umbrella term that covers not only environmental consciousness around pesticides in agriculture, but also around issues like fair trade practices, earth-friendly manufacturing, packaging, transport, etc.,” says Eric Ring, head of purchasing and certification with Choice Organic Teas, Seattle, WA.

Being sophisticated consumers, gourmet customers understand the hard work behind their favorite indulgent treats and are eager to know about it. PWC suggests retailers “ensure the items you carry openly emphasize details like their sourcing history, quality ingredients and premium packaging” (1).

Seal-bearing products provide consumers immediate recognition of shared values. A Fair TradeEdenCertified seal, for example, lets the customer know the brand “ensures farmers with much needed financial stability, as well as increased skills and knowledge through technical advice,” says Lloyd Bernhardt, CEO of Ethical Bean Coffee, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Given the continued problem of child labor on cocoa plantations in parts of the world like the Ivory Coast and Ghana, conscientious gourmet consumers want gourmet brands to be aware of what is happening in their supply chain (2).

Ethical Beans further enhances transparency by connecting consumers with their coffee bean farmers. Each bag has a unique QR code allowing consumers to view interviews with farmers and Google Map each bag’s beans “down to the exact coop they were grown in,” says Bernhardt. Gourmet consumers want to enjoy their morning lattes guilt-free, and transparent, ethical sourcing is a major selling point. When brands build consumer trust in this way, it also reflects positively on the retailer selling it.

Gourmet-minded consumers, says PWC, are “1.5 times more likely to want their future grocer to be extremely socially responsible” (1). Demonstrating social responsibility by stocking ethically sourced, sustainable products, as well as practicing sustainability in one’s store allows customers to connect not only to the brands on the shelves, but also with the brand of the retailer.

As founder and master chocolatier, Michael Antonorsi of Chuao Chocolatier, San Diego, CA, points out, “Sustainability is not just a strategy, but a culture.” He adds, “Consumers can ascertain whether the spirit and intention toward sustainability are truly part of a company or just its messaging.” When it comes to this, natural product retailers have a significant edge. The culture of health, sustainability and social responsibility is already powerful. Don’t rest on your laurels, however, as progress is always welcome.

“Sustainability is an evolving journey for any company and we here at Ethical Bean are always looking for new ways to adapt and become more environmentally friendly,” says Bernhardt, acknowledging that the company is still seeking a recyclable or compostable solution for its coffee bags. How is your store evolving to reflect progress in the industry or the community you inhabit?

Recognizing the “Little Guy”Certification has an immense value, but not all products without certification should be regarded less favorably. Retailers stocking local artisanal goods understand that gourmet quality and sustainability are paramount to many small, independent manufacturers. They just lack the resources to bear the appropriate seal.

BlueBonnFor one thing, sourcing certified ingredients can be difficult. “Ingredients that are ‘new’ to the market but still unknown to the larger public are often not certified...even if they are grown and produced organically,” says Ring. Certification is also expensive. This means that sustainable companies may go unrecognized because they can’t afford the certification process despite maintaining sustainable practices and creating quality products. PWC suggests, “Prioritize the stories behind the products you sell” (1).

Showcasing such products and the stories behind them with signage on store shelves or by simply communicating them to customers are simple ways to give recognition. Gourmet customers are always looking for something new and enjoy learning about unfamiliar brands, especially ones that share their values. Retailers can also impart knowledge onto customers. Coming back to the wine connoisseur, if you were to display appropriate wine pairings in your cheese section or cheese pairings in your wine sections, it would encourage gourmet customers to make purchases and explore your selection more closely.

Retailers can also utilize technological resources to help customers realize which products are sustainable, even those without  a seal. HowGood, which Bernhardt brought to WholeFoods’ attention, ranks sustainability of a company’s product as “No Tag,” meaning the product was either not rated or has not met the company’s standards; “Good for the World,” meaning it is more sustainable than 75% of all U.S. food; “Great for the World,” meaning it is more sustainable than 85% of all U.S. food; or “Best for the World,” meaning it is in the top 5% of sustainable foods.

Customers can use the app to search for a product or scan its  barcode to determine the level of sustainability. When retailers partner with HowGood, ranked products have their sustainability designation placed by the price tag, allowing consumers to make an informed choice immediately. HowGood then ­­­helps retailers track and analyze the sales of these products.

Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company, South Woodstock, VT, maker of artisanal cheeses is an example of the value of looking beyond certifications. “Our sustainable practices happen from the farm level up and operate with the cycle of cow to cheesemaking and back to cows,” says Sharon Huntley, director of marketing for the company. For example, at Vermont Farmstead, the by-product of cheesemaking, called whey, is mixed with grain and hay and fed back to their animals. They also provide whey to local pig farmers who feed it to their livestock, as well as donate their manure to local farmers to use on their fields.GFCO

“We’re conscientious about where and how the ‘waste’ of our processes are used,” says Huntley. “We are proud to call ourselves a sustainable company. The term ‘organic’ is more complicated, at least in the dairy business.” While Vermont Farmstead’s herdsmen are very meticulous about the nutrition content, quality and composition of the hay and grain they feed their cows, purchasing certified organic hay and grain, says Huntley, would more than triple their feeding costs. “It is a leap we cannot afford to make with no improvement to be gained by it,” she adds.

Resources like HowGood allow admirable brands that don’t have certification to stand a chance against brands that do. Most of Vermont Farmstead’s products, for example, are currently rated as “Great for the World” on HowGood, and this is without a USDA Organic seal. “Retailers must engage in conversation, understand the opportunities that both they and their suppliers have and then dialogue about the differences,” says Antonorsi. “Allow companies the freedom and flexibility to be sustainable in a manner that works best for them.”WF

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References1. “Front of the ­­­­Line: How Grocers Can Get Ahead for the Future,” PWC. 2014 2. J. Wernau, “Child Labor On The Rise in West Africa as Demand for Cocoa Grows,”, accessed 4/29/2016.Published in WholeFoods Magazine June 2016