Who cares about sustainability? It’s not just millennials

Conscious consumerism is on the rise but new research shows it can be tricky to persuade shoppers, especially younger ones, to pay an ethical premium. By Nick Hughes.

There’s an argument to be made that 2018 is the year conscious consumerism reached the mainstream.

From the backlash against plastics that has seen militant shoppers ripping food from its packaging at the checkout to the seemingly relentless growth in plant-based eating, UK citizens are, it seems, increasingly shopping with their hearts as well as their heads.

It stands to reason therefore that businesses and brands that respond with green pledges and sustainable offers can benefit commercially. But there’s a catch. Despite seven out of 10 European shoppers identifying favourably with companies that demonstrate strong sustainability credentials, almost half are reluctant to pay more for the warm glow of doing the right thing.

That’s according to IRI’s new European Shopper Survey, which asked 3,300 consumers from seven European countries about their shopping habits. (It concluded that UK shoppers sit in the middle of the sustainability spectrum below the super-conscious Italians and Greeks but above the impervious Germans and Dutch).

That price remains a barrier to conscious consumption is not necessarily an obstacle to more sustainable shopping. There is no evidence that moves towards recyclable and compostable packaging have bumped up the retail price of a cup of coffee or a takeaway meal, while one of the selling points of plant-based eating is that – with a few exceptions – vegetarian or vegan options are at least as cost-competitive as meat-based alternatives.

But where production methods and sourcing policies are concerned things become more problematic. IRI notes that, particularly for locally sourced and organic fresh produce, price can often get in the way of good intentions, with 48% declaring they are unwilling to pay a premium.

The research provides other interesting snippets of information for food businesses looking to get conscious consumers onside. One is that preferences are not always directly related to a product’s attributes. Two-thirds of consumers, for instance, said they would prefer to buy products from retailers that used alternative and renewable energy even though such information is rarely available in-store or at the point of purchase.

The survey also blows holes in some commonly held perceptions about millennials and Generation Z. Although 18- to 24-year-olds are often billed as the most socially conscious consumer demographic, IRI found that while there is an overall preference among European shoppers for locally supplied items, this demographic are less concerned about product origin and environmental impact than older consumers and would rather fill their cupboards with big brand names that are perceived as cool and more innovative. Across every product category, 18- to 24-year-olds expressed a preference for international over local brands, with just 12% saying they preferred to choose local for packaged goods and only 13% for both beverages and frozen food.

Young people are also unlikely to be swayed by information provided at the point of sale. IRI’s research revealed that 61% of these shoppers go online to research new product and store information, with over half using their smartphones as their preferred device. “We talk a lot about physical availability in the quest to build brands. That’s essential, but online visibility of product attributes, transparency and the promotion of these qualities offers an increasingly important platform to help shape and validate younger generations’ spending choices, both instore and online,” said Olly Abotorabi, a senior regional insights manager at IRI.

As thoughts begin to turn to 2019 sustainability trends, there are some clear lessons for businesses from the 2018 survey. The first is to keep working on packaging – delivering products with less of it was the number one future expectation for shoppers across all age groups.

The second is that where conscious consumerism requires people to dig a little deeper into their pockets, information that justifies the premium is key. “Stronger communication instore and online regarding product quality and the support provided for local producers offer viable routes to overcome this hurdle for more than half of the shoppers surveyed,” Abotorabi said.

And lastly? Don’t believe the hype that it’s only the kids that care about the planet.

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