Defining What Sustainability Means to the Chinese Consumer

Silver Fern Farms, New Zealand’s leading processor, marketer, and exporter of premium quality lamb, beef, and venison, approached The Silk Initiative (TSI) to better understand sustainability, specifically in China. As China makes up a significant portion of their business, local product adaptation is critical. Having research to inform and shape their activation strategy in the Chinese market was imperative, especially around the company’s long-term sustainability goals of regenerative agriculture and net-zero carbon.


Insights, Strategy, Innovation, Design


Silver Fern Farms




There is now an expectation for brands to be ethical, with 90% of consumers in Asia-Pacific wanting brands to stand for something. How this applies to Chinese consumers, though, isn’t as well known. The pace of market evolution, millions entering the middle class, and unique characteristics mean China is likely to view this growing global trend differently. Yet, China is rarely considered separately from larger APAC insights.

TSI took a year-worth of in-house data and research to unlock how Chinese consumers think about sustainability. Using TSI’s proprietary NavigatorTM, the research industry’s first dynamic data intelligence platform that collects, analyses, and visualises Asia-Pacific’s food and beverage landscape, we surveyed over 600 consumers across all age demographics. The focus was on Chinese first-, second-, and third-tier cities. The survey questions probed reactions to various environmental and social sustainability drivers. We also conducted in-depth interviews with several consumers and distributors.


Qualitative and quantitative research • Sustainability Discovery workshop • Communication strategy • Activation and community-building ideation • Key messaging • Pack design optimisation

Points of Difference

Subject matter (Sustainability) expertise • Sustainability Discovery workshop • TSI NavigatorTM data and Hotspex emotional profiling • End-to-end approach

TSI started by reviewing the brand’s existing sustainability measures and data. Next, we conducted desk research to uncover trends within sustainability and looked into how sustainability is communicated and activated across other categories, such as protein, dairy, and clothing.

To quantify consumer beliefs and behaviour around sustainability, we leveraged our proprietary Navigator™ platform, and used semiotics to study how sustainability is visually communicated in China. We ultimately grouped 220+ images into 12 codes indicating dominant and emergent communication trends in sustainability.

TSI then conducted multiple discovery workshops with a range of consumers, chefs, and suppliers. We used our in-house Sustainability Collage tool with participants to create twenty-five collage boards, visualising their perceptions of sustainability. To generate inspiration for effective sustainability communications, we also facilitated discussions on brand vision, sustainability claims, packaging ideas, and community activation.

Continuing our exploration phase, we interviewed consumers, chefs, and existing client partners to understand their current attitudes and perceptions toward sustainability, as well as their thoughts on existing sustainability messaging in the market. 

Most importantly, we explored how these varying groups thought red meat brands could best communicate sustainability to both B2B customers and consumers, and other ways for SFF to promote its sustainability initiatives in the Chinese market.

While these results are specific to the client and their industry, research is easily replicable across different industries and sectors. The goal is to encourage private-sector adoption of more sustainable practices and drive consumer uptake in sustainable consumption.

Incorporating learnings from the in-depth interviews and discovery workshops, TSI identified 13 territories and corresponding sustainability attributes for each territory. These were then prepared for online consumer testing, with the best-performing territories selected for further development.

Finally, we took our sustainability messaging through consumer validation testing to ensure it fully met consumer expectations of a sustainable brand. Utilising in-depth consumer heat maps from our technology partner, HotSpex, we were able to ensure confidence that Silver Fern Farms could speak to its various stakeholders with the correct approach. 

Next, we took the findings from consumer territory validation to develop sustainability messaging and community activation ideas that resonated with both consumers and business customers. We also created an easy-to-follow reference guide for our client to ensure clear and consistent sustainability messaging to both customer groups across all its marketing channels.

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