A Reflection On Sustainable Shopper Behaviour


The term sustainable, and how this translates into shopper behaviour differs between several demographics, including: ideological belief systems; age; and cognitive decision-making abilities. What is undisputable however, is that being or buying sustainably is no longer a point of contention or seen through the ‘green-peace warrior’ lens of the nineties. It is accepted as an aspirational way of thinking and doing, that has saturated shopper ideology throughout the first-world population.

It’s clear that every generation wants to do the right thing. Last year 73% of consumers said they would definitely change their consumption habits to reduce their environmental impact[1] and engagement has never been higher. According to Traackr data, engagements on sustainable and second-hand fashion posts have increased 150% and 106%, respectively[2], whilst mentions of sustainable fashion among influencers have increased by 55% from 2018 to 2019 and mentions of second-hand fashion have increased by 137%.

It isn’t just fashion companies that are seeing this movement in shopper interest. Beauty influencers are increasingly vocal about products being sent in over-the-top, wasteful or overly ornate packaging, with the ‘#wastefulpackaging’ mention rising 100% from 2018-2019.  Whilst beauty specific posts containing phrases like ‘sustainability’ and ‘eco-friendliness’ increased by 25%[1]. This has particularly influenced Gen Z and Gen Alpha’s. 45% of Gen Z-ers’ choose brands that are eco-friendly and 49% said they would pay more for sustainable products[2]. Desire to buy green is even more fervent among the Alphas, with 66% wanting to buy from green companies. Meanwhile the boomers outdid the younger generations in green living this year. The UKs’ over 55s’ are 84% more likely to recycle their waste, 66% more likely to avoid single use plastics, compared to the 55% of Gen Z-ers and 47% more likely to only buy seasonal vegetables[3].

From boomers to Alphas’, we have seen a torrent of environmental calls to action, from reems of posts on social media to Sir David Attenborough’s world-famous Blue Planet series. Without a doubt, there is no longer even a question as to whether this has translated into the way shoppers’ shop - evidenced by the 70% of US sustainable equity funds recording returns in the top halves of their broad-based peer group in the first three months of 2020[1].

Despite vast improvements, there are still shoppers that find it difficult to think longer term when trying to buy sustainable products. “the benefits of sustainable behaviours [can seem] psychologically distant, abstract, uncertain, and difficult for consumers to grasp.”[1] The solution for retailers is to help consumers see their consequences as less abstract and more tangible. This can be done through terminology that brings the future into the present, i.e. X number of trees were felled in the time it took you to read this sentence, vs. x number of trees will be felled this year. Another factor for instigating behavioural alteration is personal experience with the seemingly distant consequences of climate change and in the last two years this has happened without the need for brand and retailers to provide visualisation.

Since the beginning of 2019 the world has seen truly apocalyptic natural disasters. Australia saw one of the worst bush fires in history, with shoppers seeing images of burning trees and animals plastered across their social media. The UK was besieged by floods and across America wildfires and flooding caused over $37.5 billion worth of damage[1]. These started shoppers seriously thinking about their environmental impact, but the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted for many, that big brands and retailers could have always been doing a lot more. In previous years the onus has been placed on the consumer - like creating products using plastic and placing the environmental blame with shoppers if they ended up in the environment, because they didn’t recycle.

Last year retailer mistrust was evident, as nearly half of consumers (43%) felt brands made it harder for them to live sustainably.[1] The images of Venice’s clear waters, smog free cityscapes and roaming wildlife have impressed upon many how quickly we can heal our world and how big a part businesses have to play in doing so. The schemes that have come into play since the beginning of corona have demonstrated that these measures can be taken. Hefty, the trash-bag marketer being a great example, having diverted one million pounds of hard-to-recycle plastics from landfills in local programs - equivalent to the weight of five passenger jet planes[2].

The fact is that 73% of consumers believe brands have a responsibility to be more sustainable, whilst 88% of consumers want brands to help them live more sustainably[1] and with the evidence of purchase potential within the sustainable products market, brands are running out of excuses. Rob Hattrel of Ebay said they have “noticed increasing demand for more sustainable products, whether it’s reusable straws, water bottles and eco-friendly cleaning products.”, with two pre-owned fashion items being sold on the platform every single second, since the beginning of 2020[1].

The shortages of food during the panic buying period of the pandemic made many realise the fragility of their own households’ sustainability and triggered huge moves towards self-sufficient purchasing behaviour. In the US an onslaught of orders engulfed seed companies. Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Mo said his company is seeing 4,500 orders daily, almost twice the usual peak demand for spring[2]. This is coupled with the rapid growth expected by 2027 in the commercial greenhouse market.[3]

Some brands have been swift to embrace sustainability in uniquely imaginative ways. Ace & Tate the opticians are a perfect example. The company launched in 2013 now encompasses over 50 stores in 10 countries. They have made their sustainability name through their exploration of the idea of responsible retail design in collaboration with Dutch designer Boris de Beijer, who repurposed leftover acetate into recycled merchandising blocks and followed by its partnership with Rotterdam-based company Plasticiet to create 100% recycled plastic countertops in its Zurich store. The gem is their breath-taking Antwerp store which features an entirely recycled interior made from rubbish collected by the local area, which looks like a modern marble palace. The brand has also committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, making it a tough act to follow for other brands looking to be the sustainable real deal.

Longer standing brands like John Lewis have also made changes. It will launch a new sustainable fashion collection on the 22nd April, in collaboration with British womenswear brand Mother of Pearl. Tencel, the branded version of a fibre called lyocell is made using a process which won an EU environment technology award in 2000.

Meanwhile the behemoth tech company Microsoft has announced a particularly bold ambition this January. They have stated that they will be carbon negative by 2030. Not only will they remove carbon from the atmosphere, but they plan on cancelling out all the carbon the company has ever emitted dating back to 1975![1] 

To quote Igor Beuker: “Sustainability will become the new way to grow profitability [but] huge transitions come with great responsibilities. We will need to develop new ethical standards, morals, values and new laws to guide us.”[1]This period has shown shoppers how much of an impact we all have on the environment and how much brands and retailers can be a part of the solution. The desire to be environmentally friendly and sustainable will not be going anywhere anytime soon, but the emphasis on company responsibility will only increase. Brands need to focus on transparency and strive to make tangible changes for their long-term prosperity.

[1] Nielsen 2019 - who is the sustainable shopper

[2] https://www.glossy.co/sponsored/socially-conscious-brands-are-winning-big-with-influencer-marketing

[3] https://www.glossy.co/sponsored/socially-conscious-brands-are-winning-big-with-influencer-marketing

[4] Nielsen 2019 - who is the sustainable shopper

[5] https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2020/02/17/Baby-boomers-outdo-millennials-in-green-living-study#

[6] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/15/investing-advice-coronavirus-downturn-shows-esg-investment-opportunity.html

[7] Trudel R. Sustainable consumer behaviour. Consum Psychol Rev. 2019;2:85-96 https://doi.org/10.1002/arcp.1045

[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2019/12/27/climate-change-drove-the-price-tag-for-15-disasters-over-a-billion-dollars-each/#62b6117a7844

[9] Nielsen 2019 - who is the sustainable shopper

[10] https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/hefty-ultimate-purveyor-single-use-plastic-rolls-out-sustainability-campaign/2241481

[11] Survey by OnePulse for Futerra Nov. 2018

[12] https://internetretailing.net/interviews/interviews/interview-from-covid-19-to-sustainability-rob-hattrell-of-ebay-on-whats-driving-change-in-the-way-we-shop

[13] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/an-onslaught-of-orders-engulfs-seed-companies-amid-coronavirus-fears/2020/03/27/5a19ccca-6ec7-11ea-aa80-c2470c6b2034_story.html

[14] https://coleofduty.com/market-reports/2020/04/21/commercial-greenhouse-market-set-for-rapid-growth-by-2027-key-playres-are-green-tek-heliospectra-ab-keder-greenhouse/

[15] https://www.pocket-lint.com/gadgets/news/151774-which-big-tech-companies-are-carbon-neutral-and-who-s-aiming-for-net-zero

[16] http://elitebusinessmagazine.co.uk/analysis/item/what-will-the-world-look-like-in-2050

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