While the concept of social responsibility is difficult for both consumers and restaurant operators to define, it is increasingly important to business, according to a new study by Technomic.

Sixty-three percent of surveyed consumers said they are more likely to visit a foodservice operation they view as socially conscious, and 53 percent of operators said that having an “actionable social responsibility strategy” would be necessary to remain competitive in the next two years, the Chicago-based research firm found.

“Consumers now expect that the foodservice venues they visit exhibit social consciousness and sustainability points, just like consumers are making the effort to do in their own lives,” said Wade Hanson, a principal with Technomic and the director of the study.

The study, the first Technomic has conducted on the issues of social responsibility and sustainability, asked foodservice consumers, operators and suppliers to rank 35 factors related to sustainability and social responsibility, ranging from the humane treatment of animals and conservation to community involvement.

Ranking high in importance among consumers were such factors as safe restaurant workplaces and recycling programs — generally, concepts that were easier to understand than, say, carbon footprints, Hanson said.

Surprisingly, consumers did not value local sourcing as highly as operators say they do, Technomic found. Late last year, chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association put “local” and “local-sourcing” at the top of their trend lists.

“Out of that long list of things that we asked about, local sourcing, local farming, local growing – those were further down the list,” Hanson said.

“I think we had anticipated that those would be something that consumers would tie back into the benefit for their local communities and that sort of thing, but yet it ranked lower on the list,” he said.

Hanson discussed the survey with Nation’s Restaurant News:

What groups are especially interested in sustainability issues?

There certainly is a core group of sustainable-conscious consumers. And there is a core group of foodservice operators who are devoted to the subject of sustainability and social responsibility, but then there is kind of the larger population.

One of the things we found is that while certainly almost everyone wants to achieve some greater good in the purchases they are making or the product they are offering to their customers, the fact of the matter is both consumers and operators are looking at the personal or immediate benefits first.

What are the demographics of that core group?

We see elements of that group coming from all different types of people and the population. It’s difficult to pin it down. But it’s typically, in some areas, age factors: those under 45 are typically likely to be more a core conscious consumer. We see some income variability. It may not be that those with higher incomes pay more attention to the issues; it’s just that they have the means to support some of their beliefs. We don’t necessarily see any differences from a gender standpoint. We do see some variability in education and the amount of understanding they have of certain issues that propels them to be more inclined to be conscious of those issues. We see some difference when we get into those who have some level of college course work. It’s difficult to pinpoint precise demographics.

How did your survey group rank the sustainability/responsibility elements?

There’s a balance of things that they are looking for. It’s a balance of the personal benefit and that community/environmental benefit. Personal benefits came into play in the health aspects and food safety. Very high at the top of list, and we asked about 35 different issues, were the importance of safe working conditions for employees of different operators and providing a quality work environment.

Easily understood issues seemed to be important, such as recycling and re-use. A program around recycling in the store or in carryout items was high on their list. The consumer finds that easy to understand, as compared to sustainability issues like carbon footprint.

How much importance are operators putting on these issues?

As we surveyed them, 93 percent of all operators indicated to us that sustainability and social responsibility was something that they consider very or somewhat important. A very high percentage [of operators] consider this an important issue, but they combine that with food-waste reduction, recycling, energy efficiency – balanced with maintaining profitability. 

We did find a bit of a leadership void from the consumer perspective. When we asked the consumer from a chain perspective, for instance, “Who are the leaders? Who are doing the positive things that are impacting the foodservice industry? And who are doing things that are positive things that are impacting the greater good,” the consumer had a lot of difficulty answering those questions. There was no clear-cut leader.

What can operators do to capitalize on consumers’ interest in sustainability and social responsibility?

National chain operators, regional operators as well as independents have an opportunity – through communication, through more widespread promotion of what they are doing and why they are doing it and what sustainability means to them. There’s a big opportunity for operators to fill that void and establish a point of differentiation in doing so.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless