Shifting sands: Are consumers still embracing sustainability? Changes and key findings in sustainability and consumer behaviour in 2021
A year ago we conducted a survey into consumer attitudes to environmental and ethical sustainability. This was before the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021 we ran the survey again, with some additional questions to gain more insight into how attitudes have changed. As anticipated, some of last year’s trends have accelerated while others have slowed. In this research we explore how consumers are adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, discuss the main barriers to consumers behaving more sustainably, reflect on consumers’ most valued environmentally sustainable and ethical practices, ask what consumers need to lead a more sustainable lifestyle and evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on consumers’ adoption of a more sustainable lifestyle. Find out more below.... and check the key findings.
How is the pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle reflected in consumer behaviour? As with last year, avoiding single-use plastics is the most common way consumers demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, with 61% saying they have cut back. A focus on seasonality (49%) and buying local goods (45%) are the next biggest areas of focus. Though slightly down on last year, ethical and sustainability issues remain a key driver for almost a third of consumers, who claim to have stopped purchasing certain brands due to related concerns. As with our previous research, around one in five has opted for low carbon transport or switched to renewable energy. That is double the number who altered their financial investments or contacted a brand to raise a similar issue. % of all UK consumers
Totals may not sum to 100 due to rounding.
What are the main reasons why people do not adopt a more sustainable lifestyle? Three reasons for not embracing sustainability far out rank all others. Lack of interest tops the list at 22%, particularly on the issue of reducing meat consumption. However, while some say they would be interested in switching to renewable energy and buying more local produce, they perceive doing so as too expensive, or difficult as not always available where they live. Indeed, expense is the second biggest barrier to change (16%). This is closely followed by not holding enough information (15%).
How does the adoption of a sustainable lifestyle vary by category? Consumers are most likely to make sustainable or ethical purchases in the categories they deem essential and buy most frequently. As you might expect, this manifests most strongly when they are shopping for food and non-alcoholic beverages. Seasonal and local produce, limiting consumption of meat and animal products, and cutting back on single-use plastic are all examples of this. Buying clothing and footwear also stimulates an interest in shopping ethically. It is a sector that has also seen a reduction in the number of new purchases. Everyday household items and beauty products also provoke an interest in sustainability. For those categories consumers are more likely to avoid single-use plastic and to choose brands that have environmentally sustainable and more ethical practices and values. For which of the following types of consumer goods or services have you adopted a more sustainable lifestyle? % of all UK consumers who said YES they have engaged in an activity in an effort to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle What are the most important environmentally sustainable or ethical values, and how does that vary by category? As above it is frequent, essential purchases that garner the greatest interest from consumers in shopping sustainably. Discretionary purchases such as alcohol and tobacco, nights out, and major purchases such as cars generate less interest. Over the last 12 months, depending on the category, certain brand values have shown themselves to be particularly significant when deciding to shop sustainably or ethically. Waste reduction (68%) or sustainable packaging scores highly (69%) when grocery shopping; and a reduced carbon footprint is also valued highly (48%) when it comes to buying major household appliances. Equally, around two thirds of customers pay attention to ethical working practices and human rights issues when they shop for clothes and footwear. Eating out and (significantly in the last year) the buying and delivery of takeaways raise the same level of concern. And looking across all categories, conserving biodiversity, water and other natural resources are also expressed as being valued by more than a third of consumers. What do consumers need to lead a more sustainable lifestyle? Here, better ways to reduce plastic and packaging have a big lead on every other consideration, with 64% citing it as their top concern. But ease of disposal/recycling and greater clarity in the sourcing of products are significant considerations too. And while businesses believe, with some justification, that consumers are looking to them to make a product’s life more sustainable, around half of shoppers would be willing to take more responsibility if they had the right information. In particular, greater clarity on how to dispose or recycle an item, better information around sourcing, and the signposting of ways to renew or repair a damaged item would all be welcome. How has COVID-19 impacted the adoption of more sustainable lifestyles? While most people have taken measures to act more sustainably, for some this may have more to do with the impact of the pandemic and having less choice and opportunities. Almost a quarter of consumers bought more local produce, and nearly one in five report an increase in buying seasonally. While these might both be indirectly due to COVID-19, these behavioural changes may become a lasting legacy. Equally, similar concerns have forced one in five to buy fewer new products as they focus on second-hand or buying less. As might be expected, this is particularly true in less affluent socio-economic groups. In summary Businesses need to plan for ways they can make their products more sustainable and build accountability into their value chain as our research shows that:
  • Sustainability remains a key consideration for consumers in 2021 with 32% of consumers highly engaged with adopting a more sustainable lifestyle
  • Equally important, 28% of consumers have stopped buying certain products due to ethical or environmental concerns
  • Gen Z are adopting more sustainable behaviours than any other groups: 50% reduced how much they buy and 45% stopped purchasing certain brands because of ethical or sustainability concerns. As wealth transfers to younger generations, sustainability and ethical considerations will need to become the standard and should be transparent throughout the value chain
  • Overall, lack of interest remains the main barrier to adopting a sustainable lifestyle, followed by the perceived expense and issues around accessing relevant information
  • Consumers want to do more but many want brands to take the lead with 64% of consumers wanting brands to reduce packaging, 50% want information on how to recycle and 46% need clarity on sourcing of products
  • It is in frequent, essential purchases like groceries, household items, personal care and clothing that consumers say they most often consider sustainability
  • The five sustainable brand practices that consumers value most include: waste reduction, reducing carbon footprint, providing sustainable packaging, committing to ethical work practices, and respecting human rights
  • There is a 50/50 split between those willing to pay more or not for environmental and ethical brands.
To find out how Deloitte can help your business respond to the changes highlighted in this research, please contact our consumer insight expert Ben Perkins or our consumer lead for Responsible Business Emily Cromwell. About the methodology: These findings are based on a consumer survey carried out by independent market research agency, YouGov, on Deloitte’s behalf. This survey was conducted online with a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 UK adults aged 18+ between 5 and 8 March 2021.
Responsible business Explore some of the ways that Deloitte can support you in your responsible business journey. We have focused on four priority areas: Whatever the business, and wherever you do it, it’s essential to build a value chain that demonstrates the highest standards in relation to labour, human rights, ethics and the environment. We can assess, design, implement, run and monitor all elements of a value chain, addressing people, process and technology needs. Businesses will feel the effects of physical climate change through higher costs, shifting consumer demand, and direct business disruption. We implement and deliver decarbonisation strategies, help businesses to seize opportunities in new growth markets and support them in developing their commitments to a green future. Companies with robust ESG strategies and growing financing needs arising from the low carbon transition, are seeking to use green and sustainable financing solutions to create an incentive structure that aligns with long-term sustainability goals. We assess, develop ambitious criteria, and assure each step of the finance journey. In a circular economy, businesses can create value, jobs, and address societal challenges. To do that, we develop circular economy business models and support product innovation to find and implement circular solutions, such as transitioning to sustainable materials and minimising waste. Find out more about succeeding as a responsible business
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