Sustainability is steadily gaining the attention of American consumers as media coverage of resource conservation increases, and concern deepens on environmental issues.

It’s by no means a household word right now, but the concept has entered into the American psyche in no uncertain terms. Some data for 2007 from a Hartman Group survey indicates that 54% of those sampled have some familiarity with the term, and that’s a fair number of people projected nationally. Other data from this survey is more telling. Some 5% of the people surveyed know which companies support sustainability values and 12% said they know where they can get the products.

Sound small? Not really. If 12% of a retailer’s customers know where they can buy products with ingredients and packaging that promote sustainability, that’s an important segment of the customer base that appears to know exactly what it wants and is going to go for it. It’s the basis for a business for suppliers and their retailer partners, and the moment is probably at hand for retailers to join suppliers in using sustainability as a marketing message.

Suppliers can work with retailers in taking a sustainability message to customers via packaging. Interestingly, some retailers are already moving in that direction on their own. Whole Foods, to no one’s surprise, is one of the leaders in this area. Whole Foods announced in January that, by April, plastic bags will no longer be available in its stores, and clerks are already asking if you want to buy a cloth reusable shopping bag.

But more to the point in packaging, Whole Foods is using label information to present its marketing point of view for its own products. For example, the label for its private-label 365 Everyday Value Whole Peeled Tomatoes 28-ounce can clearly states that the product was grown with “methods of pest control that have the lowest environmental impact.”

Other retailers are part of this movement. Wal-Mart, early and heavily into sustainability, is phasing out large detergent jugs and will only sell concentrated detergent in small packages. The message to consumers is that such moves won’t cost more and will in fact save money.

There are plenty of ways to use this opportunity. Suppliers can explore how to leverage with retailers the power of a sustainability message on packaging relative to both the product and the packaging itself. Taking that message to consumers is going to be increasingly important to developing a customer base, because, as one consultant has put it: “Going green is not going away: it’s becoming a way of life.”