Consumers Are Increasingly Buying Sustainable Products, Research Shows

by André Gonçalves André Gonçalves

buying sustainable products

Sustainable soap. Sustainable toothbrush. Sustainable wood. Sustainable avocados. Sustainable coffee. Sustainable palm oil. Sustainable plastic. Sustainable jeans. Sometimes, in the middle of all this sustainability mood, comes the question: how is this sustainable hype progressing? Chances are you’ve probably seen new products labeled as sustainable in your usual supermarket, because the segment of sustainably packaged products is indeed growing, according to new research.

People Are Buying More Of What’s Labeled As Sustainable: The Math Behind It

We’re living in times when companies are being warned to adjust their products and services to the changing expectations of consumers. Why is that? Because the expectations of Millennials or Gen-Xers aren’t the same as the previous generations. As studies come out, consumers have been telling they’re increasingly concerned about the environment, how they want governments and businesses to act in a transparent and socially responsible way and how they’d buy more from companies showing they care and stop buying from the ones that don’t. And yes, consumers seem to have the expectations they state aligned with their wallets.

The study produced by NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business in partnership with IRI used data collected between 2013 and 2018. According to Whelan and Kronthal-Sacco, authors at HRB, this data came from bar scan codes at retail checkout in products such as food, drug, dollar, and mass merchandisers, in a total of 71,000 products from 36 categories.

The researchers didn’t assess whether the products they classified as sustainable were indeed so. They simply assumed that a product marketed as sustainable was indeed sustainable. Products branded as “natural” with no other sustainable identification or merely with recyclable packaging were not considered for the sustainable products pool. Their goal was clear: they wanted to find out whether the purchases of sustainable products had been increasing over time.

The Rise Of Sustainably – Marketed Products

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The results were clear: products marketed as sustainable accounted for 16.6% of the market in 2018, 2,3% more compared to 2013. This represented around $114 billion in sales, 29% more than in 2013. And simulations show this market can reach$114 billion in sales by the year 2023.

At the same time, other conclusions are that these sustainable-marketed products grew at a pace that’s 5.6 times faster than the ones not claimed as sustainable. In fact, sustainable marketed products grew 5.6 times quicker than their conventional counterparts, and 3.3 times faster than the consumer packaged goods (CPG) market. Another interesting finding is that in +90% of individual product categories, sustainably marketed products grew even more than their respective categories.

And how are these sustainable products organized? Which categories have the largest shares?  Categories from which consumer demands a higher functionality perhaps, such as detergent, toothpaste, diapers, deodorants or energy drinks account belong to the <5% share. Vitamins, soap, napkins, dish detergent or cereals account for a 15%-18% share. And the categories with the largest share of sustainability marketed products go from crackers to fresh bread, bottled juices, coffee, yogurt or toilet tissues, all with >18% share.

It’s Time For Business And Political Leaders To Walk The Talk

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The optimistic ones will probably take this study’s conclusions as good news – after all, consumers are indeed voting with their dollars and increasingly buying sustainably marketed products. Negative people and the ones looking for profit at whatever cost will see at first sight an opportunity to greenwash consumers. They’ll enjoy this window of opportunity to advertise as sustainable products that are far from being produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

But indeed, buying sustainably-labeled products with an unsustainable lifecycle has no positive impact. So it’s up to the top consumer good companies now to build strong and transparent CSR and sustainable development strategies. They need to account for variables they have more direct control, such as distribution, transportation or packaging. And they’ll need as well to track their supply chain better, ensuring their supply chain is paying fair wages and polluting the least possible.

And to slow climate change down it’s up to consumers to keep this sustainable mindset and keep voting wisely, which will in the long term bring the price of these (sustainable, often more expensive) goods down too. But there’s something more consumers can do. Look deeper. Don’t be naively satisfied if a product is marketed as sustainable and take a look at where it was produced. Is it local or did it make a long journey to get to the shelf spending a lot of CO2? Is it seasonal? Does the packaging have recycled plastic? Or is it make from paper from sustainably managed forests? Or even no plastic at all, calling out for people’s own bulks? To which companies do these products belong to? How are they neutralizing their carbon impacts? What about reading their sustainability report and figuring out if they have a strategy, priorities and specific goals they’ve committed to achieving? And if you’re not happy: let them not directly your thoughts, share them across social media, or, indirectly, just shift away to different purchasing choices.

Image credits to bag on Shutterstock, store on Shutterstock and customer on Shutterstock

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