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Sustainability still top of consumers' minds during COVID-19

Despite the economic hardships caused by COVID-19, consumers still care about—and will spend more for—sustainable products.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the food and beverage industry hard, forcing everyone from growers and suppliers to packaged goods companies and the consumers they cater to do re-evaluate priorities as well as business and purchasing habits. However, when it comes to consumer priorities and purchase-drivers, sustainability remains top of mind and may even grow in importance, according to a recent survey from Genomatica. 

Despite millions of Americans and consumers across the globe dealing with unprecedented economic hardships over the past several months, the importance of sustainability—even when such priorities can carry higher price tags—has only grown.

According to the Genomatica study, a whopping 85% of respondents polled said they have been thinking about sustainability as much or more than they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those who say they are thinking about sustainability more, reasons given varied from seeing fewer cars on the road (45%) to an increase in plastic waste (40%). U.S. consumers aren’t just thinking about sustainability, however; they also want to see substantive change, with 56% saying they want both the government and brands themselves to “prioritize sustainability even while facing other issues.”

Other takeaways from the Genomatica survey show consumers are also looking for ways to personally become more sustainable or wish to do so. Of consumers who say they’ve been more sustainable since the COVID-19 pandemic, 48% say they are inspired to continue to do so, and 42% said doing so has been “easier than they thought.” Perhaps just as important, of those who say they have not been more sustainable during the pandemic, nearly 60% say they “don’t like it,” (i.e., wish they could be more sustainability-minded), with 36% expressing guilt about their inability to be more sustainable during these times.

While it is certainly reasonable that economic hardships have limited peoples’ ability to live more sustainably, both the Genomatica survey and recent data collected by Informa’s NEXT Data & Insights team show consumers are, when able, willing to spend more to help the planet. Among those surveyed who have been laid off, furloughed or otherwise seen job disruption, 43% still say they’d pay extra more sustainable products.

Informa’s NEXT Data & Insights team has been collecting consumer data regularly during the pandemic, and what they’ve seen mirrors the results of the Genomatica survey in many ways. The most recent NEXT data, collected August 3, showed 58% of consumers would pay more for products that demonstrate environmentally responsible practices; 57% remain concerned about animal welfare. Those numbers have tracked up over the course of the pandemic; in the week of April 9, those numbers were just 37% and 51%, respectively. Consumers also demonstrated increased awareness of those who grow and provide the foods they eat; 65% say they value who grows their food and how it was made, up from 55% on April 9.

And, while concerns about animal welfare have fallen from 64% in 2017 to the 57% now, those willing to pay more for environmentally responsible products have jumped from 45% in 2017 to nearly 60% now; those who value who made their food and how it was made have increased modestly from 61% to 65% over the same time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly everyone and left millions in dire financial straits. But despite that, the pandemic has continued to open the eyes of consumers to the importance of sustainability; brands would be wise to take note that, even in the midst of incredible hardship, consumers value the planet and are willing to prove it with their wallets—so long as those brands, in turn, prove their priorities match up.

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