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Sustainability in The Eye of The Consumer: Are consumers still embracing sustainability?



Consumers’ expectations have changed and companies can no longer satisfy their shoppers by providing value to them. Consumers from all around the globe value brands’ contributions to the planet and society and make choices based on companies’ commitments. Customers increasingly choose and advocate for organisations that live by sustainable values. In fact, a recent survey of 2,000 people in the UK found that 49% of consumers (across demographics) are more likely to recommend brands that address environmental concerns.

The rise of decarbonisation, regenerative design, and eco-shaming has prompted consumers to expect organisations to help them live more sustainably. A 2018 survey by OnePulse revealed that 88% of consumers want brands to help them live sustainably. Consumer behaviours are continuously evolving to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, curbing the expected barriers. To lead a more sustainable lifestyle, consumers have identified their most valued environmental and ethical practices, discussed below, as well as what they need to do to lead this lifestyle.

How does consumer behaviour reflect the pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle?

Single-use plastics are the most common way consumers demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, with 61% saying they have cut back. Seasonality (49%) and buying local goods (45%) are the next biggest areas of focus.

A third of consumers report being concerned about ethical and sustainability issues, a key driver for almost a quarter of those who have stopped purchasing certain brands. Among those who have changed their brand consumption habits, one in five has opted for low carbon transport or switched to renewable energy. That is double the number who altered their financial investments or contacted a brand to raise a similar issue.

% Individuals of the UK have put efforts into adopting a more sustainable lifestyle:

  • 39% reduced their air travel.
  • 39% reduced the purchase of new products.
  • 30% chose brands that have ethical practices.
  • 30% reduced consumption of meat/animal products.
  • 19% opted for low carbon emission transport.
  • 7% contacted a brand to raise an issue on their sustainability or ethical practices.

The most important environmentally sustainable and ethical values for consumers

Shopping sustainably involves purchasing items that have a low environmental impact and a high social benefit, including those that generate interest from consumers in their own community. Discretionary purchases such as alcohol and tobacco, nights out, and major purchases such as cars generate less interest.

Over the last 12 months, certain brand values have proved especially significant when it comes to determining whether to purchase sustainably or ethically. With grocery shopping, the waste reduction has shown itself to be particularly important (68%), while sustainable packaging also scored high (69%) and reducing carbon footprints was also valued highly (48%) when it came to major household appliances.

Consumers are increasingly concerned about ethical working practices and human rights issues when they buy clothing and footwear. Eating out and the purchase of takeaways also raise the same concerns. In all categories, consumers are also more concerned with preserving biodiversity, water and natural resources.

The data: Most valued sustainable practices

  1. Waste reduction is valued by 44% of UK consumers.
  2. Producing sustainable packaging and adopting circular practices, valued by 43% of UK consumers.
  3. Reduction of carbon footprint, valued by 43% of UK shoppers.
  4. Committing to ethical working practices. Valued by 41%.
  5. Respect and practice of human rights, valued by 39% of UK adults.
  6. Protecting and supporting biodiversity, valued by 36% of UK residents.
  7. Adopting diversity and inclusion practices, valued by 26%.

Barriers hindering consumers to adopt a sustainable lifestyle

Consumers pointed out three reasons for not embracing sustainability. Among the barriers to reducing meat consumption, lack of interest ranks highest, at 22%. However, some people say they would be interested in buying more local produce and switching to renewable energy, but consider practicing this expensive or difficult. In fact, the expense is the second biggest barrier (16%). This is closely followed by not holding enough information (15%).

Besides the above-mentioned barriers, the UK consumers do not engage in a sustainable effort because

  • 10% believe that it doesn’t make any difference, while 10% hold that it is too inconvenient.
  • 9% think of it as a difficult practice.
  • 7% are unable to adopt a sustainable lifestyle due to the unavailability of sustainable products in their local area.

Key findings: In summary

Businesses need to plan for ways they can make their products more sustainable and build accountability into their value chain by setting standards and measuring performance. Consumers were highly focused on sustainability in 2021, with 32% of them highly engaged in efforts to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Presently, Gen Zs are adopting more sustainable behaviours than any other group. 50% started buying less of what they bought, 45% stopped purchasing certain brands because of ethical or sustainability concerns, and 33% started buying less frequently. As wealth transfers to younger generations, sustainability and ethical considerations will need to become the standard in order for companies to stay ahead of the competition.