The Conscious Consumer

COVID-19 creates deeper awareness of sustainability

Without a doubt, the biggest societal shift that took place in 2020 was due to the Coronavirus pandemic. From one day to the next, we collectively came to realise we could no longer take the world we live in for granted. Working from home, people started noticing and appreciating their surroundings more. City dwellers breathed more deeply, experiencing first-hand the impact of carbon emissions on air quality. Rural residents woke up to find sheep roaming now empty village high streets. Empty shelves in supermarkets highlighted our reliance on the global supply chain. A wakeup call that changed perspectives, including on sustainability, across the generations.

“We share an inherent connection with our natural resources and the regions in which we operate. It is our duty to protect, restore and rethink the world around us.”

We first reported on the rise of conscious capitalism back in 2016, when we interviewed Elisa French of Ceeyana for ReLocate on how this new world view is impacting the way we do business. Joeri Van den Bergh of InSites Consulting confirms that the pandemic has amplified this megatrend, making it tangible across the generations. With offices in seventeen countries worldwide, InSites Consulting is uniquely placed to quantify this global shift in perspective on sustainability. As the firm’s co-founder, Joeri Van den Bergh likes to push boundaries, especially when it comes to market research.

Positive Impact Company
We republish this interview with permission of the Spadel Group, home of Bru and Spa mineral waters, from their sustainability platform Source of Change. Creating a more sustainable world, accelerating the circular economy and joining a climate neutral society are the main drivers for this Belgian family owned organisation that is on track to becoming a Positive Impact Company. As Spadel Group CEO Marc du Bois puts it: “We share an inherent connection with our natural resources and the regions in which we operate. Recognising the power of our actions, we commit to protect, restore and rethink the world around us.”

Climate Protests
In 2019 the fight against climate change dominated the headlines. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, children around the world bunked off school to protest global warming, proving Generation Z won’t be silenced. The ongoing demand to ‘do better’ ensured the climate issue was firmly placed centre stage and in September 7.5 million people took to the streets, frustrated by government inaction and half-hearted corporate promises. That summer, InSites Consulting launched a study to uncover which issues mattered most to our communities.

“84% of Europeans aged 15 or over feel sustainability is ‘important’ or ‘hugely important’,” explains Joeri Van den Bergh. “And this is even higher with the younger generations, with almost 9 out of 10 Millennials (aged 14 to 24) and Gen Zs (aged 25 to 39) ranking it as a top priority. Generation X (aged 40 to 55) tends to be most sceptical; being critical is a typical Gen X response. They often consider corporate sustainability efforts to be a commercial strategy rather than about contributing positively to the environment. Even so, 8 out of 10 feel sustainability is important.”

Global Pandemic
In 2020 a new fight dominated the headlines. This time a global pandemic had us sheltering in place, introducing terms such as social distancing and lockdowns into our vocabulary. So did COVID-19 become more important than climate change? InSites’ second study asked the same questions as in 2019, and more, charting a clear evolution.

 

“During the first lockdown we found that the younger generations were less concerned with their own health, but very much so with that of their parents and grandparents,” says Joeri. “The impact of the virus on the economy and job security were also major concerns, but the health of our planet remained a top priority as the impact of the lockdowns on quality of life and the environment became apparent. With the roads clear of traffic, air quality improved. People started noticing flyaway litter and became aware of the amount of packaging they were using now that everything ended up in the bin at home. Similarly, people made a point of using what was in the fridge rather than letting it go to waste.”

“The leading conclusion to come out of the 2020 study was that none of the issues became less pressing in people’s minds. A number of issues became more important, such as CO2 reduction, but it was the social and local aspects that received the biggest boost. Despite – or precisely because of – the economic downturn consumers realised how important it is to support independent retailers, rather than the big chains. Seeing how dependent we are on the global supply chain also made people think about becoming more self-sufficient. Topics like the circular economy and buying locally have gained a lot of traction thanks to COVID.”

Understanding Sustainability
“Sustainability is a broad issue,” continues Joeri. “It becomes clearer when you divide it into three components: better for me (organic, natural, additive free, etc.), better for the planet (recycling, packaging, emissions, biodiversity, etc.) and better for society (fair wages, child labour, gender equality, etc.). If you look at the top 5 spontaneous associations with sustainability, you’ll see they are all linked to what’s better for our planet.”

“Sustainability can be confusing for the average consumer. When we buy organic cotton, we think we are doing the right thing as it is farmed without pesticides. But cotton needs huge amounts of fresh water; a limited resource. Perhaps it’s been imported from the other side of the world, creating emissions. Or workers may not have been paid a fair wage, making it a lot less sustainable than a traditional cotton produced locally. So it might be better for yourself, but it isn’t necessarily better for the planet or for society. We expect an organic label to mean sustainably produced at a fair wage – or fair trade to mean organically produced and good for the environment – but these are three entirely different things.”

“Enjoying brand preference and receiving ‘license to play’ a role in consumers lives will depend on whether or not you are sustainable.”

Conscious Consumers
About half of Europeans believe they live a sustainable lifestyle, with the other half saying they don’t. The top reasons for this being ‘I don’t know what I can do’; ‘the subject is too complex’; ‘it takes too much effort’; or ‘it’s expensive’. Education on these topics is an important part of creating a more conscious consumer believes Joeri, as well as making sustainable choices easily accessible.

“It’s important for brands to invest in sustainability. It positively reflects on your brand, with over half of consumers – across all generations – agreeing sustainable brands are more up to date. Seven out of ten admit to thinking more positively of companies and brands that actively reduce their ecological footprint. Additionally, consumers believe sustainable products to be better quality. Finally, it’s a big part of employer branding. People want to work for employers that share their personal values, and purposeful work helps attract young talent.”

The InSites study not only confirms the importance of taking a sustainable approach to business, but also serves to highlight quite how deeply ingrained the desire for a better world has become across the generations. Understanding all aspects of sustainability – better for me, better for the planet, better for society – is simply the first step in becoming a company with a positive impact.

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