Sustainability 2019: Evolving consumer priorities around purchasing and packaging

Not that long ago, green products and initiatives with connections to sustainability were seen as a kind of "good to have," both within corporate boardrooms and in the consumption behavior of average consumers. This is no longer the case. In the past couple of years alone, media headlines have documented mounting environmental and social challenges worldwide leaving Americans surrounded by stories tracing the impact of their consumption on society, the natural world and their own communities.

The Sustainability 2019: Beyond Business as Usual report finds that consumer concerns over climate change, plastic waste and a host of other perceived ills are pushing companies and government toward real action.

Thus, within the sphere of sustainability, whether it’s extreme weather events, worker treatment or plastic packaging waste, the overarching narrative according to consumers is one of systemic ills requiring urgent action. This story is not a new one (consumers have been deciphering the maze of headlines, claims, jargon, certifications and corporate and public interest platforms that make up the complex world of sustainability for decades), but it is far more acutely felt and consistently articulated today.

Consumers we speak with are summoning specific images and events that shape their perspectives and sense of urgency, which in turn is influencing a new sense of relevance, especially for topics that intersect with the environment and many other issues ranging from packaging waste and transparency to fair trade. Our Sustainability 2019 report finds that sustainability as a cultural value and defining concern for consumers has not lost any of its vitality over our years of research -- if anything, it is gaining momentum.

Sustainability today is shorthand for a complete moral system of cultural values, beliefs and attitudes related to a sense of responsibility for the greater good. Consumers today are being confronted by real and immediate sustainability challenges. Crises no longer seem far away in time or space -- even abstract problems like climate change and the permanence of plastic waste have become pressing and present topics, and consumers say they want progress and solutions.

In this tense national mood, consumers appear to be more willing to prioritize the greater good in their purchasing than in the past. In a major shift, 51% of consumers now cite the environment as their major reason for purchasing sustainable or socially responsible products, compared to 32% of consumers just two years ago.

Relating specifically to plastic pollution, consumers have been exposed to and are comprehending the scope of such waste driven by photos of animals, birds, whales and fish harmed by plastic. Media exposure has helped forge a visible representation of the scale of the plastic waste problem and a perceived need for collective action to solve that. The results have been that packaging, particularly its disposal, is now seen as a primary way in which consumers can mitigate their personal environmental footprint. Our Sustainability 2019 report finds that 91% of consumers either aspire to make or already are making efforts to reduce how much plastic they throw away.

Because of increasing social and cultural awareness about its impact, single-use plastic waste has the hallmarks of a growing issue to be acted upon, prompting even consumers who are less engaged with sustainability to think more about limiting plastic use. Culturally, awareness and adoption of the term “single-use plastic” is growing -- a term that that is permeating mainstream consciousness and usage.

As a term, single-use plastic succinctly identifies both the items and the problem they cause. It also makes consumers think about the balance of convenience and an object’s life post-disposal. Consumers are asking themselves, "Is momentary convenience worth creating a piece of waste that never breaks down?" The term also hints at the issue as one of product design, something consumers have little control over.

When it comes to overall responsibility, consumers are looking to companies and governments to lead on providing sustainable solutions to a wide range of problems linking to sustainability. Consumers now see packaging, like climate change, as a collective problem that requires action from government, companies and individuals alike. Unlike previous years, consumers have a sense of the scale of the problem their waste poses and are convinced that individual action is not enough (although they acknowledge that individuals must also change their behavior, too). In general, consumers are skeptical of corporate motives and distrust government, but know that any solution to the collective problem of waste must involve the collective entities that we currently have.

Overall, while the stakes are getting higher in a broad range of issues (environment, climate, waste, worker’s rights, etc.), eroding trust in government and corporations has left consumers hungry for leadership within the realm of sustainability. The moral, even spiritual, overtones evident in consumers’ relationship to sustainability stem not just from a search for hope and resilience but also a sense that collective action and even sacrifice is necessary for progress.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

 

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