Moving the Sustainability Needle Forward

New reports highlight gaps between environmental sentiments and actions among both retailers and consumers
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
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New consumer research identified areas of improvement in sustainability for retailers and individuals.

When it comes to sustainability, consumers and retailers have their work cut out for them. At least that’s the conclusion of two new surveys.

One of the reports focuses on shoppers’ view of sustainability strides made by retailers offering e-commerce. According to a survey of 8,000 global consumers from Descartes and SAPIO Research, only 38% of people feel that retailers are doing a good job of using sustainable delivery practices. More than half of these respondents (54%) said they are willing to accept longer lead times if it means eco-friendlier delivery options. 

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That report, "Retailers: Sustainability is Not a Challenge, It’s an Opportunity," also found that sustainability practices are a priority for younger consumers. Forty-two percent of respondents aged 25 to 34 said they regularly or always make purchase decisions based on the environment, versus 34% of those over the age of 65.

“The mistake that many retailers are making is viewing home delivery sustainability as yet another challenge from the consumer instead of an opportunity to capture market share, reduce delivery costs and help the environment,” said Chris Jones, EVP, industry and services at Descartes. “The study shows that many consumers prefer to buy more from those retailers with superior sustainable delivery practices and to take eco-friendly delivery options that reduce environmental impact and delivery costs at the same time.”

Another recent survey measured consumers’ attitudes towards companies’ sustainability efforts and their own commitments to improving the health of the planet. According to a report released by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 70% of respondents feel wary about corporate sustainability claims and commitments.

BCG’s report also revealed that consumers are aware of their own environmental shortcomings. Although 80% said they are concerned about sustainability, only 1% to 7% have paid a premium for sustainable purchases and 20% believe they can personally have an impact.

Like retailers, consumers are taking at least some actions. Nearly 60% said they are following sustainable behaviors such as recycling products, bottles and packaging (36%), using reusable cloths for cleaning (35%), and buying refillable cleaning and home care products (29%).

In the report, "Consumers Are the Key to Taking Green Mainstream," BCG pointed out opportunities to bridge the gap between intention and action to accelerate additional sustainability changes. "It's easy to interpret these signals as a lack of consumer readiness, but companies will never maximize the potential of sustainable products and services if they focus only on consumers who are willing to pay a premium," declared Aparna Bharadwaj, co-author of the report and a BCG managing director and partner and global head of BCG's Center for Customer Insight. "There's a significant number of 'in between' consumers who are just on the threshold of embracing sustainable products and services. The key question is, 'How do we encourage these consumers to act?'"

BCG shared suggestions on how to make progress toward sustainable goals, including pursuing benchmarks set by companies and by individuals. For example, while 7% to 16% of consumers cite sustainability as one of their top three purchase drivers, 20% to 43% of them could be persuaded to make sustainable choices if the products or services deliver on other related needs.

Communicating a broader set of benefits for sustainable products, such as health or quality, could double or quadruple the number of consumers who purchase them, BCG’s analysts pointed out. They also cited other opportunities, such as making claims locally relevant and combating misperceptions about “green premiums” when it comes to price.

"By understanding consumers' core needs, and by removing real or perceived barriers through innovation and communication, companies can significantly increase sustainable outcomes," said Lauren Taylor, the report’s other co-author and a BCG managing director and partner and global leader of the firm's customer-centric sustainability topic. "Making the attribute of sustainability an 'and,' not an 'or,' will be a win-win for everyone.”

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