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How brands can meet consumers’ evolving sustainability needs

Sherry Frey, vice president of Total Wellness at NielsenIQ, discusses how growing awareness of sustainability is changing shopper habits, and what brands can do to adapt their approach to sustainability with long-term growth in mind.

5 min read


A shopper in a supermarket with a child in a grocery cart consults her shopping list

Image: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

This post is sponsored by NielsenIQ.

Consumers’ attitudes around sustainability are evolving to include a broader definition of the term that encompasses effects on people and communities as well as the environment. Sherry Frey, vice president of Total Wellness at NielsenIQ, discusses how growing awareness of sustainability is changing shopper habits, and what brands can do to adapt their approach to sustainability with long-term growth in mind.

Sherry Frey, vice president of Total Wellness at NielsenIQ

How has consumers’ definition of sustainability evolved in recent years, and what effect is this having on their shopping habits?

Customers are looking for brands that push the envelope. Green initiatives around recyclable packaging and materials are the baseline. In a NielsenIQ Omnishopper survey, nearly half of respondents said they expect companies to use sustainable packaging materials to be considered truly sustainable.

Ultimately, consumers are looking for brands to rethink every aspect of the supply chain and its impact on the environment, people and global communities.

Consumers want brands to set a new standard for production practices in labor and sustainability. Products with B Corp stated claims grew 27.3% in sales within the past two years, per NielsenIQ Retail Measurement Services. Fair wages, humane treatment of animals and humans, minimizing waste, and using renewable materials all are factors that promote a healthy, equitable world. These factors will determine whether a brand will succeed over time. 

How is the interest in the environment and sustainability evolving into social responsibility?

The pandemic played a large part in increasing sustainability awareness and magnifying social issues. Frankly, it’s the cost of health that is the uniting force connecting consumers, organizations and the government. As a society, we began to champion public health issues and we came together as a community. 

There was a pronounced period of reflection for the inherent value of health and care, which was taken for granted and undervalued. Health and wellness is at the forefront of conversations between governments, businesses and shoppers. It’s no longer a channel – it’s how consumers shop across the store. According to a NielsenIQ Global Health Wellness Study, 61% of respondents agree environmental issues are having an adverse impact on their current and future health.

Shoppers understand that environmental factors affecting health include water, healthcare access and air pollution. Our Omnishopper survey revealed that 41% of people said they’re very concerned about air pollution and 38% of consumers agreed companies should reduce CO2 emissions. Businesses are arguably nimbler than governments. US consumers are looking to support businesses that self-regulate their environmental footprint; thus, there is power in the purse. Conscious consumerism is mainstream. 

What aspects and issues are influencing consumer purchasing decisions the most, and what opportunities does this create for brands?

In a NielsenIQ 2022 Consumer Outlook Survey, consumers said they’re more likely to buy products with sustainable attribution than they were two years ago. Since 2020, shoppers have bought $18.5 billion worth of social responsibility qualified products. In 2021, our panel data revealed that food and beverage consumers’ interest in social responsibility increased by 27.6% compared to 2019. 

Brands need to consider how to communicate their key sustainability and social responsibility claims. It is just as important for a brand to know that a consumer may be more likely to purchase items with claims like “cage-free” and “wild-caught” as it is for brands to know income level, the number of children in a household, or how health conditions impact purchase habits. 

In NielsenIQ’s Global Health & Wellness Study of 17 markets, we found that 64% of US consumers are willing to pay more for products that support communities and vulnerable groups. Consumers are hyper focused on improving the world around them with the advocacy for ethical and humanitarian treatment. The altruism lens shifted to social inequality after the newfound appreciation for blue-collar workers – their efforts during the pandemic did not go unnoticed. 

Social inequality has an inherent influence on public health. At NielsenIQ, we’ve explored the inherent inverse relationship between many comorbidities with income, especially diabetes. Access to health and wellness related products is a major priority for consumers – income, distribution, ethnic and racial disparities cannot be a barrier to entry. According to 2021 NielsenIQ Retail Measurement Services, products with health attribute labeling are 88% pricier than average. Brands are tasked with understanding the needs of lower income consumers to better serve the community.

How can companies increase transparency around their sustainability efforts to build customer loyalty?

Brands need to provide transparency in all stages of the supply chain, which include ingredients, nutrition, product sourcing and production methods. Since the start of the pandemic, consumers have bought $7.6 billion worth of products with stated responsibly sourced claims.

Shoppers are proactively searching for key terms on brand websites and product packaging that align with their values. To gain their loyalty and trust, products need to ensure clear labeling and transparency of company practices. 

In our omnichannel marketplace, consumers are more loyal to values than to brand. Values must be met for optimal product discovery. It’s integral for brands to have access to data to help track attribute metrics, which will help uncover critical insights and category trends for growth and investment planning.

To learn more, download NielsenIQ’s reports “Long-term sustainability: Building a healthy brand to last” and “How healthy food access impacts low-income shoppers.”

Sherry Frey brings more than two decades of industry experience to her role as vice president of Total Wellness at NielsenIQ. With a background in market research, innovation and consulting, she has elevated clients across the fresh, CPG and wellness industries, providing forward-thinking insights, combined with practical strategies. In addition to leading NielsenIQ’s Total Wellness team and industry engagement, Frey has been a featured speaker at many national and international industry events, and is often sought as a media and analyst resource on topics related to consumer health, wellness and environmental issues. Her view of health and wellness spans beyond personal health and wellness, encompassing how we collectively think about the health of the planet.