UK consumers’ interest in sustainable products has risen significantly, according to the latest EY Future Consumer Index, with more than a quarter (28%) saying they have increased their purchase of sustainable products over the course of the pandemic and a third (34%) plan to increase this after the pandemic.
However, the survey of over 1,000 UK consumers found barriers that stop consumers from shopping more sustainably, including high prices, confusion around product quality, and lack of trust in sustainability credentials.
The EY report found that more than two-thirds (67%) of respondents say that high prices were a definite deterrent to shopping more sustainably and buying sustainable products. More than a third (35%) wish that they could afford to do more.
But even though sustainable products can come at a cost premium, UK consumers say that the investment brings a feel-good factor that is important to them – 28% of those that have bought such goods say they are playing their part for future generations and 27% feel that they are contributing back to the future of the planet and society.
Other than cost, quality of information and trust in brands are also significant barriers. The majority (56%) cite misleading product information as putting them off buying, and more than half (51%) lack trust in brands and retailers to help them make sustainable purchasing choices. Over three-fifths (64%) of respondents perceive sustainable options to be of poorer quality. This ultimately leads consumers to lose patience, with 37% saying that understanding how to make more sustainable choices is too difficult or time-consuming.
Silvia Rindone, EY UK&I Retail Lead, comments: “Our report shows that people want to do their bit to tackle sustainability challenges, but they don’t yet have the right information to turn those desires into action. There is a clear prize to be won if brands and retailers can communicate with clarity, authenticity and consistency.
“A number of retailers and consumer goods companies have been proactive and are leading in shaping the agenda around the future of sustainability. However, greater coordination across the industry is needed to align on standards that ultimately will make it easier for consumers to make more informed choices.”
The impact of age on sustainability concerns
The EY report also found that consumer expectations around shopping more sustainably vary significantly by age and product category or sector. Younger consumers (those under the age of 40) have human rights in their top three concerns, prioritising it nearly twice as much as their older peers. Human rights sit alongside climate change and plastic waste for this age bracket.
The ‘intention-action gap’ also differs by age, and between different actions. For example, during the last six months, more than a quarter (27%) of younger consumers have checked the sustainability credentials of products before they purchased – a figure that’s more than twice the rate of older consumers (13% of those over the age of 40). Meanwhile, a smaller proportion (20%) of younger customers have actively researched the sustainability policies of an organisation, also at twice the rate of older consumers (10%).
Actions speak louder than words
The EY research tested several different pledges to see which would drive the most engagement to buy from consumers. A pledge to ‘donate 1% of profits for the environment, support grassroots protestors, launch petitions for environmental initiatives and use 70% recycled materials’ drove the highest engagement, with a 23% increase in consumer preference to shop from the company or organisation concerned.
Pragmatic pledges, such as waiving shipping fees for the delivery of products with less packaging, drove a 15% increase in consumer purchase preference. Meanwhile less measurable pledges, such as a pledge to ‘make a $2bn climate pledge to ‘decarbonise’ the earth and achieve net-zero by 2040’ drove only a 10% increase in purchase preference.
Silvia Rindone comments: “To close the trust gap, retailers and brands need to prove that sustainability is about action rather than words.
“For real change when it comes to helping consumers making environmentally savvy purchasing decisions, companies need to create an Environmental Social Governance (ESG) agenda that is anchored in the strategy of the business and not an add-on. They must integrate a new strategy into their ways of working, not just a one-and-done project but a way of defining the purpose of their business. Companies should clarify what their target consumer wants in terms of sustainability and clearly communicate what is relevant to them, remembering that priorities can differ by age and sector.
“Brands and retailers must reinforce their brand equity and sustainability communication using external certifications that are most relevant to their consumer audience. They need to put sustainability at the top of the priority list and into the heart of the business; not just within the board room – but also across sourcing, supply chains, marketing communication, technology and data.”