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Getting inside the head of sustainable diners

They're everywhere. They're hard to spot, because they look much like the average diner. But if you're serving organic food, conserving water or using renewable energy, they could become your best customers: "sustainable consumers."

Market research consistently finds that roughly 15 percent of Americans are hardcore eco-shoppers, but that more than half of consumers are spending on sustainable items some of the time. A 2007 National Restaurant Association survey found 62 percent were more likely to visit a restaurant they knew was green. And hard times are not slowing them down, according to a recent survey by the Austin, Texas, marketing firm EnviroMedia. Fifty percent of consumers are buying as many green products as before the recession, while 19 percent are buying more.

By traditional marketing measures, sustainable diners aren't too different from your existing base. They're a little likelier to be female, young and college-educated and to earn a little more. But demographically, reports the Grocery Manufacturers Association, "they are diversely spread along all income ranges, age brackets, education levels and various household sizes."

They're easier to identify by their values and behaviors, researchers agree. But they're not a single, homogenous group. "Almost everybody is green," says New York green marketing consultant Jacquie Ottman. "But there are segments of green." Here are the three key segments:

Environmental Activists Researchers call this core group everything from Green-thusiasts and Eco-centrics to LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability). It takes in 13 to 17 percent of consumers, up to 36 million people. They know the issues, from climate change to fair trade, and they shop their talk.

"LOHAS consumers are early adopters and influencers," says Gwynne Rogers, LOHAS Business Director at the Natural Marketing Institute in Harleysville, Pennsylvania. "They're seen as a resource by friends and family for sustainability topics. They can become your marketing engine."

This group is hungry for sustainable dining, but they're not sure where to find it. The Yankelovich MONITOR, a division of The Futures Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, finds 62 percent want to know more about eateries' environmental practices, versus 29 percent of the general public. And it's not enough to serve 100 percent natural beef. They want to know the name of the farm, along with what you're doing to cut down on water, power and trash.

Organic Eaters Another 17 percent of shoppers, reports NMI, care more about sustaining their own bodies than sustaining the planet. Despite the recession, they drove U.S. sales of organic foods and beverages from $20 billion in 2007 to $23.6 billion in 2008, according to the Organic Trade Association.

"'Naturalites' use organic foods because they perceive them as better for their health," says Rogers. "They're also interested in foods that are low-fat and high-fiber."

"Pragmatically,"says Laurie Demeritt, president of The Hartman Group, "their first step is that this product is better for me and my family, and by the way, it does good for the environment. They start with what goes into the body, then move to what goes on the body, then to what's around the body, and finally, to what's outside the home."

Economizers For this segment, conservation is good if it also conserves cash. "They're dabbling or experimenting with eco-friendly products to save money," says Susan Viamari, editor of the Times & Trends Report for Information Resources, Inc. of Chicago. "It will be good for the environment, and it will save money by lasting longer."

According to Viamari's data, this group includes 15 percent of consumers. Its members are older than most green shoppers and 65 percent male. They'll spend money to save money. This year, they're shelling out 8.4 percent more on sustainable products, despite the recession.

That's a snapshot of sustainable consumers today. But researchers warn that their quarry is evolving fast. Before the recession, reports Penn, Schoen & Berland, 15 percent of consumers cited sustainability as their top purchasing concern. This year, it's 16 percent, and 22 percent say it will be their number one factor once the downturn is over.

Some of that boost will come from young adults, aged 18 to 34, predicts EnviroMedia CEO Valerie Davis. They're more concerned about climate change than any other age group. "If I'm a restaurant," says Davis, "I might need to make sure that I do have my sustainable business practices in order, if I want to capture the younger market."

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