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Sustainability Is Still Important to Consumers, But They Want Retailers to Be Transparent

Consumers still care about sustainability, even as the pandemic has caused many shoppers to reassess their priorities, according to the second annual Retail & Sustainability Survey by CGS. But the industry is falling short: The survey found that half of U.S. consumers believe that apparel and footwear brands do not provide sufficient transparency into their sustainability practices.

Enterprise technology company CGS surveyed 2,000 consumers from the U.S. and U.K. about the role that sustainable products and practices play in their retail decisions. Although the survey found a year-over-year decline of 17%, 51% of consumers still ranked sustainability as important in 2020. (The company attributes that decline to the pandemic’s impact on shoppers’ financial circumstances.)

“During a pandemic, the Maslow hierarchy of needs becomes more important,” said Paul Magel, president of business applications and technology outsourcing division at CGS. “We will see physical and emotional safety of the consumers impacting the priority of the sustainability movement.”

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Nevertheless, a majority of consumers still care about the sustainability of the brands and retailers they support, with 56% of U.S. consumers saying they would pay more for a sustainable option. A quarter of all respondents said they would pay up to 25% more for sustainable products, with women slightly more likely than men to support that. This suggests there is room for companies to increase brand loyalty and raise their prices to accommodate the higher costs associated with environmentally friendly materials and ethical employment practices.

While there is agreement on its importance, the definition of sustainability is still in question. This reinforces the need for brand transparency. CGS reported that 24% of U.S. consumers described sustainability as being eco-friendly and reducing waste, while 22% defined it as comprising ethical practices. Other definitions included “donates to good causes,” “has a strong mission or purpose” and “doesn’t test on animals.”

“There is still much about sustainability that is left to the interpretation of the consumer; it can be very personal,” said Magel. “Most recently, we’re seeing buying from Black-owned businesses as a priority for many shoppers. The changing dynamics — whether economic or cultural — tend to affect consumer priorities and their definition of ‘sustainable.’”

Companies that detail the ways that they are introducing sustainability into their business will be more likely to resonate with this demographic of shopper. And currently, they are lacking; CGS reported that 50% of U.S. consumers believe brands aren’t demonstrating their practices, while a further 27% believe some are but that they could be doing more.

Communication is particularly important for companies working with second-hand items, which saw a growth in popularity during 2019. This trend has continued into 2020, reports CGS, but the stakes are now higher due to the risk of COVID-19. Brands will need to articulate the protocols they use to maintain safety standards across production, handling and shipping of items, in order to reassure more cautious shoppers. Others may choose to pause their upcycling or second-hand reselling programs, if this cannot be guaranteed.

But there are alternative ways to promote sustainability and attract a consumer base, even if those shoppers are currently more conservative with their spending. Actions taken now could help foster brand loyalty for when consumers are ready to buy again, particularly as 30% of U.S. consumers reported that they would not purchase from a brand that didn’t use sustainable practices.

“Recently, we are seeing many brands take on new sustainability initiatives, beyond sales of products,” said Magel. “For example, French footwear and accessories brand Veja refurbishes existing shoes, offering a ‘test hub’ for cleaning, repairing and recycling shoes.”

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