Social responsibility "acculturated" U.S. consumers, says Silbermann -

Social responsibility "acculturated" U.S. consumers, says Silbermann

The U.S. produce industry has reached a tipping point in social responsibility even though the topic is "still not an issue" for the majority of supermarkets, according to Produce Marketing Association (PMA) CEO Bryan Silbermann.

Speaking with during the PMA Fresh Connections: Mexico event held in Queretaro last week, Silbermann said while political and geographical factors had limited consumer awareness, times were rapidly changing.

"I would far rather be sensitizing and preparing people than having to respond three years from now," Silbermann said.

The PMA leader urged those eschewing the movement to immediately get prepared.

"North America's been interesting because until very recently consumers haven't expressed a lot of interest in the sustainability, the social responsibility of produce," he said.

PMA CEO Bryan Silbermann

PMA CEO Bryan Silbermann

"In terms of sustainability and social responsibility, American consumers have not been as demanding as Europeans."

Much has changed in recent years however, with companies like Starbucks drawing attention to social responsibility through a focus on fair trade.

"I think companies like that have really made ethical sourcing and social responsibility part of their brand," Silbermann said.

"And as they've done that and companies like Whole Foods have done that on their food and retail side, folks have started to sit up and notice. I think it's kind of acculturated the consumer in the U.S. to be more demanding and to ask those kind of questions, and I would say we're getting close to a tipping point.

"The whole ethical sourcing push here in Mexico in part was a response to what happened with the LA Times story late last year," he said, referring to the publication's four-part investigation entitled 'Product of Mexico'.

Representatives from Starbucks and Walmart are due to speak at a PMA board meeting in a few months to talk about why they're putting more emphasis on ethical practices now, and why it's a bigger issue these days than five years ago.

"I do think we need to get ahead of this. For the majority of the supermarket chains in the United States it's not an issue, but I think it's going to become an issue. Where it's going to go, I don't know." Silbermann said.

"But I do think consumers are becoming far more demanding. They want to know what's in their food, where it was grown, who grew it, and I think web-based tools have altered the balance of power in terms of communication.

"Whereas once it was 'we will tell you what we want to tell you', now it's 'we’ll tell you whatever it is that you say you want to know'. It's very different. I think the shoe's on the other foot."

While Silbermann believed strong progress was undoubtedly being made with social responsibility in the U.S., he felt consumers in the North American country would likely never catch up with Europeans.

"America is a country founded on manifest destiny and plenty of land - the whole idea of unlimited potential and so forth," he said.

"So the whole notion that European consumers have been subject to which is finite resources, finite space, the need to be much more aware of where they put things, and how they do things and transport things – that's a totally foreign cultural set of values from what Americans are used to."

Proving produce marketing concept

While the increased emphasis on social responsibility and ethical business practices could affect the way the produce industry operates, a recently announced initiative supported by the PMA could affect the very level of demand for produce items.

In February the PMA announced it had pledged US$1 million in funding for the 'FNV' campaign initiated by the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), whose honorary chair is First Lady Michelle Obama.

'FNV', which stands for fruits and vegetables, is a marketing campaign that intends to build emotional resonance for produce with the help of compelling and catchy marketing to ultimately drive produce demand and increase consumption.

Silbermann believed the campaign had the biggest potential to boost consumption out of anything he had seen in more than three decades at the PMA.

"The concept is that if we used celebrities in the world of sports, music, movies who want to do good for free - not get millions of dollars of endorsements but who really believe in getting kids to eat better - could we use them and employ the same marketing techniques used by companies like Nike and Apple and move the needle on fruit and vegetable consumption?" he said.

"If we engage the industry, we use social media which is much less expensive than traditional TV, we engage supermarkets, restaurants and everybody else, and we do it in a cohesive community-wide environment, how could we move the needle?"

While the PHA only brokered the 'eat brighter' campaign by bringing together the PMA with Sesame Street, the FNV initiative is different in that the PHA came up with the idea but wants the PMA to test the waters with it.

Several million dollars are now being raised to pilot test the initiative in two U.S. cities - Fresno, California and Hampton Roads, Virginia.

"They picked those two cities in part because they have a higher percentage than usual of ethnic minorities, who tend to have the biggest problems with obesity rates," Silbermann said.

"They also have metropolitan areas that have a fairly tightly controlled media market, so you can have a lot of bang for your buck, with radio and TV and so forth."

Some celebrities have already been videotaped endorsing fruits and vegetables in a 'hip and catchy' way, and a taskforce has also been created behind the scenes to work with supermarkets and put together year-long campaigns.

In addition, fresh produce consultancy firm Nielsen Perishables Group is carrying out research to ascertain attitudes toward and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables before, during and after the campaign.

Silbermann said along with using new media and Michelle Obama's influence, the beauty of the initiative was that it aimed to prove the concept of fruit and vegetable marketing before implementing a much more expensive nation-wide campaign.

"That to me is 'let's prove the concept and then we'll talk about the money'," he said.

"I think at the end of 2016 we’ll be sitting down and saying 'what did this do?' or 'what impact did this have?' I think this more than any other thing I've seen in my 32 years at PMA has the potential to be a game changer, I really do."