Consumers in Canada Increasingly Embracing Sustainability as Pandemic Continues: Study

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Much around us, in just about any direction we look, has been impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic, altered and changed to at least a marginal degree. It’s accelerated a digitization of the world around us and the operations of those providing products and services. But, perhaps the most significant change that’s occurred during the pandemic period when it comes to retailers and the success of the industry is the shifts in consumer sentiment with respect to the products they buy, the ways they are choosing to buy them and the brands they buy them from. Many consumers in Canada and around the world have taken the opportunity over the course of the past year-and-a-half to reassess their values and beliefs and arrive at a clearer understanding of the things that matter most to them. And, according to the recent EY Future Consumer Index, a vast majority of global consumers’ attitudes toward consumption and their own sustainable practices are intensifying, and they are increasingly looking toward retailers and other businesses to take the lead on environmental issues.

“Whether recycling or reducing plastic waste, composting products, buying organically or bringing reusable shopping bags to stores, the majority of Canadians are pivoting to a more sustainable way of living,” says Lokesh Chaudhry, Consumer Co-Leader, EY Canada. “More than half of Canadians plan to pay more attention to the environmental impact of what they consume but continue to rely on companies to act as leaders in driving positive social and environmental outcomes.”

Conflicting mindsets

Of those surveyed for the Index, most consumers around the world (64%) plan to pay more attention to the environmental impact of their actions and the products they consume. It’s all part of the reassessment of values and beliefs that consumers have been steadily undergoing since the onset of the pandemic. They’re looking for brands and their manufacturer partners to be doing more with respect to sustainability and environmental issues. However, they’re also exhibiting financial caution, reserving their spending as tightly as possible, as a result of the uncertainty and economic fragility caused by the pandemic. It’s yielded a curious mindset, defined by a confluence of heightened awareness of both the need for greater sustainable practices on the part of retailers and other businesses and a hesitance to pay for those improved practices.

In fact, according to the Index, 31 percent of respondents are now willing to spend more on products that are sustainable and better for the environment, with an additional 64 percent prepared to adjust their behaviour and practices if it results in societal improvements. However, 39 percent of global consumers believe that health issues and concerns associated with the pandemic will continue to impact their lives for at least another 12 months, with 78 percent expressing concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their finances, and a further 53 percent believing that price is a more important purchase consideration than it was prior to the pandemic. Underscoring the mindset confluence even more significantly is the fact that more than half of respondents (56%) have stated to intend on adopting sustainable behaviours, but only if it saves them money, including conserving energy use (85%), recycling or reusing packaging after use (83%) and bringing reusable shopping bags to the store (83%). They are somewhat contradictory sentiments that are recognized by Chaudhry who believes that retailers and their partners have got to do more in order to fulfill the growing desire within consumers for greater sustainability.

“Although sustainability is quickly climbing to the top of consumers’ priorities, economic uncertainty is driving consumers to focus on affordability as well,” he asserts. “More consumers want to buy sustainably, but they need companies to make that possible for them, especially at a time when price remains the number one purchase criteria. Meanwhile, stockpiling, store closures, and border issues have wreaked havoc with the consumer goods supply chain over the last while, and consumers who are willing to make a more sustainable choice don’t always have access to products that reflect their changing values.”

Charged to lead

As a result of the lack of commitment on the part of the consumer to pay more for improved sustainable and environmental practices and initiatives, an overwhelming majority of them (68%) are looking to retailers and other businesses to drive the agenda and commit financially to ensuring positive outcomes. Of those surveyed, 28 percent believe that large multinational corporations should reduce waste generated during production, while 25 percent believe companies should reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, high prices remain one of the top deterrents when it comes to paying for sustainable products, with 66 percent avoiding doing so as a result. Concerns around poor quality (67%) and a lack of trust borne from past “greenwashing” and alleged deceptive marketing (60%) are also consumer influences when shopping for and purchasing sustainable products.

Findings within the Index also notes an education gap that exists among consumers concerning the products they’re purchasing and the associated impact on the environment, with 61 percent admitting to requiring more information from retailers and their manufacturing partners in order to make more informed purchasing decisions. Chaudhry says that it’s a sentiment that reflects a need in the consumer to know more about the products they’re buying and the brands they’re buying from, as well as a need for retailers and other businesses to provide greater transparency into their operations and value chain. He says that it represents one of the biggest opportunities for the industry going forward to give their customers what they want, helping to guide their decisions around sustainability.

“To give consumers the sustainable products they increasingly want, at a price they are willing to pay, retailers need to create products that reflect the nuanced concerns of target consumers, and they need to make sure the business operations behind the brand meets those expectations, too. An increasing number of consumers believe brands must be transparent about their environmental impacts in the production of their goods and services, which is why transparency from retailers will be critical to encouraging sustainable choices. By leveraging data and technology, consumer products companies will be able to provide the transparency and traceability consumers increasingly demand.”

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Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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