Shifting sands: How consumer behaviour is embracing sustainability


Shifting sands: How consumer behaviour is embracing sustainability

How old you are and how much you earn makes all the difference.

Following on from our previous insight our latest research into the changing landscape of consumer buying behaviour reveals the growing influence of sustainability. Please note, the survey outlined below was taken before the COVID-19 Lockdown. We will update our findings in due course to demonstrate whether attitudes change in a post-Lockdown world.

How is the pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle reflected in consumer buying behaviour?

Consumer trends in 2020 suggest that concerned consumers are adopting a raft of different measures to shop and live more sustainably.

The graph opposite demonstrates the most prominent lifestyle changes. It shows that cutting down on single-use plastics was embraced by over two-thirds of respondents, making it the most popular method of supporting sustainability. Shopping for brands with environmentally sustainable values was next, followed by reducing overall spend on new items, and the consumption of meat and animal-based products.

Over a third of consumers also value ethical practices in the products and services they buy. And as concern about climate change continues to grow, approximately 1 in 5 are opting for low-carbon transport, switching to renewable energy, or cutting back on the number of flights they take.

Which changes are the most popular with different demographics?

People of all ages are adopting more sustainable consumer behaviours. But generational analysis shows marked variations in the level of engagement between different age groups — and not always in ways you might expect.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s Gen Z who are least engaged in environmental issues, in contrast with Younger Millennials who are the most engaged. Yet conversely, supporting ethical brands matters more to Gen Z.

Older Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers — covering the full strata of population from 31 to 74 — are all similarly engaged with sustainability issues, whilst Pre-Boomers are least engaged of all. That said, cutting down on single-use plastics is generally a high priority for older consumers who are also keen adopters of renewables. And whether for environmental reasons or not, at 26%, Pre-Boomers are most likely to be reducing their air travel.

How do barriers to sustainable shopping differ by demographic?

Comparing how obstacles to sustainability differ between consumers can tell us why some engage more readily than others.

Where single-use plastics are concerned it’s the inconvenience of cutting back, alongside a lack of interest, that are the biggest stumbling blocks to sustainable shopping. And brands which position themselves as ethical or environmentally friendly are more likely to be perceived as expensive.

When it comes to cutting back on consumption of meat and animal products, apathy is the biggest barrier to a change in consumer behaviour. That’s followed by scepticism that reducing it actually makes any difference.

Do consumer trends in 2020 suggest sustainability is a luxury some can’t afford?

If we were to highlight one perceived barrier to the growth of sustainable and ethical brands, it would have to be affordability. Put another way, the more affluent the consumer, the more likely they are to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.

Our research shows that consumers with a household income of over £50k are most engaged with the idea of sustainable shopping, as well as the most likely to have altered their behaviour. That comes with two notable provisos, however: cutting back on air travel and buying less overall. In the case of both, not surprisingly it tends to be lower income groups who are most engaged with these.

Reducing consumption of meat and animal products, on the other hand, is a trend that spreads across all income brackets. But it may also be a sign that people are cutting back to save money, as much as for ethical reasons.

Our conclusions

Consumer trends in 2020 reveal that sustainability is a key consideration for a variety of consumer segments when making their purchase decisions. That said, convenience and cost continue to rank highly.

Over 45s are most likely to reduce their consumption of single-use plastic. They’re also keen to engage in other environmental issues, such as cutting carbon emissions.

Ethics matter more to younger consumers. 18-34 year olds are most likely to choose brands for their ethical values, and cut down on their meat and animal-product consumption.

Cost is a significant barrier to adoption, particularly for switching to renewable energy. It’s often also why people haven’t shopped for more sustainable brands; they may want to, but feel they can’t afford it.

Across the demographic board, the biggest obstacle to adopting more sustainability-based consumer behaviours is quite simply apathy. Between 1 in 10 and 1 in 3 agree with this statement — and that suggests brands need to do more to engage with consumers.


For more details and additional information, visit our Deloitte UK page.

Did you find this useful?