When purchasing food, Australians are not interested in abstract notions on climate and emissions, but are engaged by pragmatic, local, specific actions that food brands are taking to be better corporate citizens, according to a new study by Porter Novelli Australia and Quantum Market Research.

The Food for Thought: ESG and Consumer Behaviour in Agriculture shows that more than half (54%) of Australians reported feeling no increasing pressure to purchase food produced more responsibly, and claims of progress on ‘net zero’ had almost no influence at all.

Porter Novelli CEO, Rhys Ryan said that while ESG and other forms of corporate responsibility have helped drive more prosocial behaviour from brands over time, the increasing cost of more responsible business needs to be offset by efficiency gains and increased sales.

“It has been incredible to see multinational and Australian businesses step up in recent decades. Consumers now expect corporations to engage all stakeholders – not just shareholders,” he said.

“At the same time, responding to increasing pressure from employees, consumers and activists – and institutional capital – always comes with a cost, which marketers often hope to offset through increased sales as discerning consumers pay a premium for ‘purpose’.

“However, ESG, purpose and corporate responsibility became buzzwords almost immediately, bringing reactionary backlash. Faced with rising costs and culture wars, pragmatic Australians seem to pick and choose which ‘cause’ they will spend more on.”

When buying food, Australians are most concerned about animal welfare (47%), Australian-grown and processed food (45%), and fair pay for farmers (43%). However, consumers make contradictory choices on animal welfare, rejecting caged chickens (23%) but not farmed fish (5%).

Boomers were almost twice as likely to buy locally grown and processed food (60% versus 35%), and more likely to want to buy from brands that pay farmers fairly (50% versus 35%). Millennials (51%) cared more about responsible agriculture than Boomers (41%). This same gap existed between consumers from Queensland (40%) and NSW (50%).

When asked why they think companies act on ESG, women tend to think it is an effort to do the right thing (48% versus 41%), while men see it as response to shareholder/activist pressure (27% versus 21%).

“Australians have always been pragmatic, but nothing sharpens your focus at the supermarket like 13 interest rate rises. When we look at food purchase choices, what stands out is tangible, practical action: Australian-made, fair pay for farmers and looking after animals. It’s only fair,” Ryan said.

“Unfortunately, the less tangible actions – while valuable in lots of ways – do not seem to translate into consumers purchase intent. For example, net zero and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suppliers were rated by just one in five people as a priority.”