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Sustainability – Think Like a Politician to Get Consumers On Board

Jessica Glover

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Sustainability. It is a complex term, but these days it has become a buzzword that gets tossed around in conversations with friends and family and hyped by the media. There are conflicting definitions, outdated stats and plenty of misinformation being shared. It’s not surprising that consumers are confused and even a little skeptical when they hear the word sustainability. As an industry, we have been trying to combat this confusion with strong, science-based facts and figures. Regardless of how much data we have been throwing at the issue, we don’t seem to be getting as much traction or airtime as those who claim animal agriculture isn’t sustainable. But I have a theory on how to get a bigger share of the spotlight and amplify our voices: Treat the message of sustainability the same way you would a political ad. How do political candidates get people to vote for them?
Before you turn and run when you hear “politics,” here’s a little bit of my story. I am a ranch girl who accidentally ended up in the public policy sector for several years. I have worked for statewide elected officials, helped manage PACs and spent time in both Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, advocating for the industry. One thing I learned from this experience is that people vote with their hearts, not with the facts. And there is a lot of research on why this is true. As it turns out, too many statistics actually lead to “analysis paralysis.” People simply can’t process all that data and tend to shut down. Researchers found the average person makes an emotional decision and then looks for the data to validate their choice.1 Voters are searching for candidates they can relate to and a story they can champion. Opponents of the meat industry figured out this tactic a while ago and have done a good job of appealing to the emotions, particularly the fears, of the average consumer. Meanwhile we are trying to convince consumers that we are the “candidate” of choice by touting our sound science, which may actually be causing more confusion than confidence.
So how can we reach consumers’ hearts when it comes to sustainability? Through recent research we conducted at Midan, we have learned what resonates with today’s meat consumers when you ask them about sustainable agriculture: Forty-four percent of consumers associate “sustainable meat” with animal welfare/humanely raised animals, and roughly 30% are concerned about environmental issues such as carbon footprints.2

Now here is an insight we can use: We know what consumers CARE about when it comes to sustainability. The great news is, the meat industry has genuine stories on how humanely raised animals are the very core of our business and that protecting the environment is critical to our operations.

So how do we tell these stories in ways consumers can understand? Put in the political context, it’s time to start kissing some babies. We need to show the human side of agriculture. Describe what it’s like to wake up 4:00 am to feed your livestock before you feed yourself, go out in the frigid cold to break ice on frozen water troughs, or stay up all night nursing a sick calf. What farmers and ranchers do every day is manage the welfare of their animals. And while you are at it, start talking about the environmental concerns that drive your soil and rangeland management plans. While this may not sound romantic to you, the restorative practices that are integral to your business model are the kinds of inspiring stories that today’s meat consumers want to hear.

Our best chance of reaching meat eaters with our sustainability message is to treat it like a political campaign and appeal to people’s hearts and emotions. Our ag stories are grounded in facts but fueled by a passion and dedication that’s hard to beat. And the work we are doing today is planting the seeds for a better tomorrow by ensuring the next generation can carry on, and improve upon, our efforts. Now tell me, who wouldn’t be moved by this story and vote for the “candidate” in this campaign?

1 When to Sell with Facts and Figures, and When to Appeal to Emotions, Michael Harris, Harvard Business Review, 2015
2 Sustainably Raised Meat Research, Midan Marketing, July 2021