Sustainability Takes Root in eCommerce

Now more than ever, sustainability initiatives have been gaining ground in online retail across nearly all segments, driven largely by consumer expectations and demand. According to findings from the Footprint Foundation, the pandemic may have contributed to this trend by making consumers more aware of the effect humans have on the planet’s ecosystems, as well as making them more connected to their core values.

Yet, as we all know, the pandemic also fueled an explosion of growth in the eCommerce industry as consumers leaned into the convenience and safety of online shopping. Shoppers continue to expect both a seamless and environmentally-friendly experience with their purchasing power, a disconnect we’ll explore further in a later volume of this series. 

How are shoppers prioritizing values in their daily routines? 

Recycling remains the most dominant “green” practice at home, but shoppers are becoming more aware of how to avoid single-use plastics altogether, opting for sustainable packaging in order to bypass a strained recycling program. While research shows that older shoppers are more likely to recycle, younger shoppers are more inclined to modify their buying habits and are driving a lot of this change in consumer purchasing behavior.

Pre-pandemic, sustainable products often outpaced the growth of their individual categories…a trend that is showing no signs of slowing down. Despite the disruption, fewer than 1 in 3 consumers deprioritized sustainable packaging in their decision making. This dedication to value-driven consumerism that is particularly evident among younger shoppers, is at the forefront of the changes that both retailers and manufacturers are making to address the sustainability expectations of their customers.

The Sustainability Generation

As of June 2021, protecting the environment was the top personal concern of young adults. Millennials and Gen Z are dialed into the ethical practices of the brands they follow and are quick to hold companies accountable when businesses are not walking the walk. Shoppers will switch loyalty if brands stay silent on social issues or don’t follow through on claims.

According to research, “94% of Gen Z expects companies to take a stand on important issues, and 90% are more willing to purchase products they deem beneficial to society.” 

At OneSpace, we see this behavior manifest in our retailer search data. For example, consumer searches for “green” keywords like “recyclable,” “sustainable,” and “plant-based” have been on the rise since the pandemic. But we’re also seeing those “green” keywords linked to a growing number of products and categories, including but not limited to:

  • Pet products
  • Food
  • Gifts
  • Holiday products and decorations
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Trash bags
  • Paper products for home and office
  • Cosmetics
  • Sports equipment
  • Home decor
  • Clothing and accessories
  • Outdoor and gardening products
  • Personal care products

It’s important for manufacturers in these categories to carefully consider brand identities in conjunction with their target demographics in order to ensure their message is not “greenwashed.” Messaging should align with consumer demand, but also communicate a brand’s position in an authentic way. 

Retailer Responsibility

In addition to holding businesses accountable to change course, younger shoppers expect retailers to take the lead when it comes to sustainability efforts. They’re not alone, however. Research shows “87% of consumers believe companies are responsible for protecting the planet and 85% believe brands should play a role in solving sustainability since they are directly related to the problem.” 

In fact, implementing sustainability measures is now considered to be table stakes instead of an innovative approach to doing business. Brands who are behind the curve on these expectations are often doing damage control as they come to terms with the fact that doing “less harm” is no longer enough to satisfy consumers.

Holistic Health

Consumers have also become more incentivized to prioritize mental and physical wellness throughout the pandemic. And as part of that consideration for their own health, they are weighing the health of the planet as a contributing factor to their own holistic well-being.

For example, plant-based protein alternatives are on the rise – not just due to their health benefits, but also because of their wider availability, better tasting formulations, and the minimal environmental impact they have compared to animal agriculture.

Many shoppers are just as much concerned about the environmental impact of a product as they are about its ingredients, expecting greater transparency along every step of the product’s life cycle. So, manufacturers who are implementing sustainability measures are growing their business as a result. 

How are companies doing their part and which ones are standing out? We’ll tackle that topic in volume two of our sustainability series.

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