Consumers are increasingly gravitating to ethically and sustainably produced goods, not just in the U.S., but globally as well. So what does it mean to make sustainably-sourced purchases, and what are some of the reasons consumers are driving market trends in sustainability now?
When we hear the term sustainability, it generally evokes thoughts of the planet, our natural environment, and reducing pollution and overuse of resources. While all of that is encompassed by the term, it goes beyond that, too. Sometimes sustainability also means thinking about the people behind a product. Is the person who does the bulk of the labor to make my clothing or grow my coffee get a fair market share of its value, or are they being exploited by someone else?
More consumers are starting to ask these questions, and they’re becoming increasingly urgent as conversations grow around climate change, the use of space, and as the population continues to grow. In just the past 20 years, the global population has grown by 1.6 billion – a staggering number and about a third of the total population of two decades ago. With more people on the planet, we have to be increasingly creative about how we consume and share with one another.
There are several reasons customers are beginning to prioritize sustainability when they shop. In fact, one study has shown that more than a third of consumers globally are willing to spend more to support their commitment to sustainable brands. Understanding these reasons can help business leaders make decisions that are sound both for the future of our planet and the future of their brands.
Below are three insights into the mindset of consumers who seek ethically-sourced products. These pain points spring from looking ahead to the potential outcomes of our business and consuming habits, and a commitment to trying to prevent the negative consequences of global consumer culture.
1. Consumers care more about the people who make the products they take home
Sustainability isn’t just about making sure raw materials continue to be available, or that we don’t pollute our global life support system while we extract what we need to make the next smartphone or car. Human beings are resources, too, and their wellbeing is central to sustainability efforts and concerns among consumers driving market trends.
Consumers are increasingly looking into business processes, from global supply chain logistics, to food production in economically depressed regions, to how human labor contributes to manufacturing of goods. Shoppers are concerned with how the people who bring products to their door are treated. Are they treated as expendable cheap labor, exploited and discarded? Or does a company make efforts to improve economies and well-being of the people who help produce its value? This concern is evident for products from diamonds to coffee.
Growing social sustainability awareness means that companies need to think about all of their labor sources, whether they are primarily domestic or foreign, full time or contracted. It’s important to take a close look at the human beings who work on every level of a business, to ensure they receive value back from the business they’re enriching.
Committing to sustainable business practices means giving fair market value for labor, providing reasonable accommodations for human needs, and promoting the dignity of people who work at every level. If 70% of your company’s profits are going straight to the top, it might be worth restructuring the way profits and benefits are allocated. Many companies are holding themselves accountable and taking steps toward social sustainability through the UN Global Compact.
2. Customers are increasingly committed to ensuring their food is sustainably produced
Many people are aware of food waste and the potential pitfalls of food production practices. Shoppers want to know that animals are cared for and harvested humanely. They are squeamish at the idea of eggs from chickens kept in overcrowded poultry factories. People also want to know that farming practices aren’t having negative effects on local wildlife, soil, and plant health – or long-term human health.
This is resulting in interesting outcomes. As population increases and pressures on food supply chains increase with it, many consumers are taking a closer look at how their purchasing power affects the environment. Significant numbers are looking to local and small scale food production, ethical animal husbandry, and vegetarianism and veganism.
Some producers are approaching food needs with a multi-pronged approach. For example, PURIS has built a virtually integrated food system to improve the lives of its growers, protect the environment, and provide nutritionally-rich food sourced with plant-based protein, which is environmentally cheaper to produce per acre than most animal food sources.
Many companies are responding to consumer demand for responsible, nutritious food sources to rethink their business practices – or are developing from the ground up (so to speak) out of business leaders’ own commitments to making the world better through the power of private sector dollars.
3. Shoppers want to be sure that the items they buy aren’t draining our planet’s limited resources
This concern is at the heart of most consumer concerns with ethical purchases. This is in line with the human population increasing (even with declining birth rates in much of the world, the overall numbers continue to grow), many animal species facing extinction, and limited spaces on the planet for the production of oxygen and food.
Millennials and members of Gen Z are especially concerned with the planet they’re inheriting from previous generations. Maybe your company doesn’t produce an electronic good or clothing – something obviously connected to the use of natural resources – but even if you’re a fintech company or mining blockchain, you can bet a significant number of your customers will be asking questions about how your use of power and labor affects the environment.
We only have one fragile life support system keeping our family of roughly 8 billion alive. If we break it beyond repair, it’s not going to matter if we shaved a little off the bottom line to get a cheaper source of cotton or heavy metals. The pressures on the environment are such that private sector companies need to respond to make any sort of impact – especially with population continuing to increase globally. Our infrastructure and production just can’t continue at previous levels.
Consumers are king when it comes to the rules of the marketplace, and any smart business keeps a finger on the pulse of customer needs and preferences. As customers increasingly prioritize sustainable products, businesses should examine their product sourcing and manufacturing to improve their sustainability scores. This is a great move for business – and a fantastic move to protect our only planet.
Image credit: Polina Tankilevitch; Pexels