Sustainable Consumers: Who Are They and What Do They Want? 

  • March 1, 2023

  • Eyes4Research

The number of people who consider themselves sustainable-minded consumers is on the increase, and brands have taken notice, with messaging that highlights their own attention to more environmentally-minded practices and ingredients. Recent research by IBM revealed that 77% of consumers consider sustainability and environmental responsibility to be at least “moderately important” brand values. This trend is reflected in the sales data, as sustainably-marketed products have seen growth that is five to six times higher than comparable conventional products, according to a study by Harvard Business Review.  But who are these sustainable consumers and exactly which sustainability claims inspire them to buy?

Who Are Sustainable Consumers?

Overall, interest in sustainability tends to be evenly distributed between genders.  And although there are other factors that also impact interest in environmental issues, like income level, geography, education level, and dietary habits (plant-based, vegan, vegetarian, etc), it is age that is the biggest difference between those who are more attuned to sustainability and those who are not. 

It is younger consumers– specifically Gen Z shoppers, who tend to have an eye toward environmental concerns when making purchasing decisions. In a recent interview with CNBC, Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider described sustainability concerns among the company’s younger customers as “off the charts”, and a major influence on their purchase decisions.  But Gen Z isn’t the only generation that is environmentally minded. Millennials also care deeply about these issues, even if their attitudes about other social issues temper a bit as they age. Sustainability seems to be the exception to that rule, as it remains an issue that they keep in mind when shopping for food and other products, such as clothing and pet products. 

Staying on the subject of generations, it is also worth noting the influence that younger generations can have on older ones with regard to sustainability.  Young people who don’t have much disposable income need to rely on their parents and maybe grandparents, in order to get what they want. Over time, this can begin to influence the decisions of those older people and have a ‘trickle upward’ effect that could leave a mark on future consumer behavior. 

What Does ‘Sustainability’ Mean to Consumers? 

Now that we know who the sustainable consumers are, what are the exact motivations that they have in mind when they are deciding on one product over another? Environmentally-minded shoppers want to buy products that are healthier and clean, they want to reduce their individual environmental footprint, and they want to leave behind a better planet for future generations. In a recent study on sustainability, McKinsey found that 85% of consumers buying plant-based foods are motivated by health reasons, making the case that for these shoppers, their personal health is directly tied to the health of the planet. For these consumers, sustainability and health are essentially synonymous. 

With this in mind, what are the specific claims that shoppers look for when they want to trust that a product is indeed sustainable, both in the item itself and how it was produced? There are more than 20 eco-labels and environmental certifications for food in the United States. In the McKinsey study mentioned above, 33% of respondents cited ‘recyclable’ as the most impactful sustainable packaging claim that they look for when buying a new product. In the sea of eco-friendly messaging, including some that are meant to mislead consumers, as is the case with ‘greenwashing’, this finding points to the fact that shoppers want sustainability claims to be truthful, clear, and familiar. 

How Brands Can Authentically Capitalize on Sustainability

In 2022, the Baker Retailing Institute at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study that found that 90% of Gen X consumers were willing to pay 10% more for sustainable products, compared to 34% two years prior. This not only points to the influence of younger generations that was mentioned earlier, but it is also evidence that there is room for brands to look at their practices to offer more environmentally-focused products to their customers. There are three ways that brands can capitalize on the trend toward sustainability in ways that will be authentic and resonate with consumers: 

  • Don’t Try to Do it All: The brands that will win over eco-minded consumers are the ones who make the sustainable transformation by choosing just one or two areas that they can refine, and do it well. 
  • Involve Your Customers: Consumers want to be involved in a brand’s sustainability efforts, but their actions in the process need to be clear, simple, and engaging. Similar to the earlier mention of the recycling claim on packaging– it is something clear and simple that involves the consumer as part of the sustainability process. 
  • Know Your Customer: The most important thing a brand can do is to know their consumer. Market research can help brands learn exactly what their customers want regarding sustainability. What does a consumer’s household size, education, income and age tell you about which packaging claims and environmental messaging will resonate with them? A brand that sticks the landing with its sustainability narrative will win loyal customers

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