A growing number of mainstream consumers say they will pay more for food and beverage products produced by socially and environmentally responsible companies, said Maryellen Molyneaux, president and managing partner at Natural Marketing Institute.

“The general population has very strong feelings towards the things we have been promoting in this industry for a long time,” Ms. Molyneaux said during a presentation at Natural Products Expo West, held March 9-12 in Anaheim. “For example, more than half of the population, 52%, say they’ll usually buy products from companies whose values are ‘most like my own.’”

That number skews higher among millennials, 59% of whom say they buy from businesses with shared values, which compares to 53% of Generation X consumers, 44% of baby boomers and 47% of the mature generation.

“When you’re mindful and they know it, they’re more likely to try your products, to buy them repeatedly, to tell their friends about them, and be less concerned about the price of your product,” Ms. Molyneaux said. 

Purposeful brands proliferated at Expo West, where companies large and small demonstrated positive social and environmental impacts through mission-driven business practices. An example is Soulfull Project, a public benefit corporation backed by the Campbell Soup Co., which was launched to fight hunger in the local community through sales of hot cereal cups. During the show, Soulfull Project received 2,729 donations and pledged to match that number to provide 5,458 servings of four-grain hot cereal to more than 200 food banks across the country.

“Aligning with a social cause can deepen a company’s ethical roots, and the closer that cause is to the heart of the business, the more lasting the impression,” said Carlotta Mast, executive director of content at New Hope Network, which produces Expo West.

Other examples of purposeful brands at the show included LoveTheWild, a maker of seafood meal kits with a mission to preserve waterways through responsible aquaculture, and Kombucha Dog, a brand of fermented teas promoting pet adoption by featuring photographs of homeless dogs on the labels. 

“Consciousness can manifest itself in many ways throughout the value chain, through ethical sourcing, triple bottom lines, charitable donations… but it can also be injected into the very engineering and production of goods,” Ms. Mast said, citing as examples ReGrained, a San Francisco start-up that makes nutrition bars using spent grain from local breweries, and Saint Benoit Creamery, which packages yogurt in reusable and recyclable glass containers to keep plastic cups out of the landfill.

“Today’s consumers demand from us authenticity; they demand from us transparency, proactivity, engagement and connection,” said Eric Pierce, director of business insights at New Hope Network, during the presentation. “Don’t be mistaken. It is our responsibility to lead, not the consumer’s. We cannot wait for the consumer to explicitly demand responsible supply chain practices. We cannot wait for the consumer to explicitly demand responsible packaging decisions.

“Because waiting for consumers somehow shifts the blame and suggests the consumers should be experts in our trade. We are the only ones who can make those responsible decisions about how we source our products and what we bring to market and how we go about doing that.”

Sixty per cent of consumers are more likely to try the products or services of a company that is mindful of its environmental and social impact, up from 52% in 2009, Ms. Molyneaux said. Fifty-eight per cent are more likely to buy such products repeatedly, up from 48% in 2009, and 33% are less concerned about the price of such products, up from 25% in 2009.

“We live in an age where consumers are relating to brands in a much newer and deeper way,” Ms. Molyneaux said. “They’re asking more questions. They want to know more about the importance of how sustainability and social responsibility from brands because all of that information is becoming more important.”

Fifty-eight per cent of U.S. consumers prefer to purchase products that are manufactured sustainably, up from 48% in 2007, she said.

“There’s an opportunity here to increase value in a very meaningful way with consumers,” Ms. Molyneaux said. “We need to be believable, we need to be transparent, and we need to be honest in our messaging. We need to be progressive. We need to show progress in what we’re doing in all of these efforts… social, environmental, health.”