Consumers care about sustainability. What does this mean for businesses? 

Editor’s note: Ron Ruffinott is VP, head of research solutions, Toluna. 

From remote work to travel and shopping habits, COVID-19 has changed many aspects of American life over the past 18 months. We can now add climate change fears to that list. Toluna recently surveyed 1,000 people in the U.S. and found that 46% of Americans surveyed were more concerned about climate change as a result of the pandemic. When ranking their top environmental/sustainability issues, respondents list climate change (56%), plastic waste (50%), food waste (47%), animal welfare (46%), deforestation (38%) and carbon emissions (34%). 

What do these new pandemic-related fears around climate change and sustainability mean for Americans – and for businesses?

Environmental technology concept. Sustainable development goals.

Can cutting down on cheese help the environment?

Today’s consumers don’t just want a great-tasting product and a short ingredient list. They also care about where their food comes from, how ethical the company producing it is, how their food is packaged and how those products impact the planet in terms of carbon footprint.

More than half of Americans report that they have reduced their dairy intake because of environmental concerns and 43% claim they are buying more plant-based alternatives. But Americans overwhelmingly love “real” milk products, and more than half say there is no substitute for cheese and ice cream. 

Even though two-thirds of Americans (66%) believe the U.S. dairy industry is sustainable, they also believe that today’s dairy brands need to create products (and packaging) that are more environmentally friendly and do more to ensure sustainability is a top industry priority. Consumers also want dairy producers to better communicate with them and explain the efforts and actions they are taking to produce products that minimize environmental damage. 

Skip the packaging 

A majority (68%) of respondents report that they are now trying to avoid buying items in plastic packaging. Although one-third of respondents feel it is easier to shop for plastic-free items than it was five years ago, 43% feel there still aren’t enough plastic-free options available – and when there are, they tend to be more expensive. While 63% claim they would switch to plastic-free options if they were available, they cite several barriers, including the belief that: 

  • Plastic alternatives aren’t as durable as plastic (32%).
  • Food and drink products are more prone to damage (27%).
  • Perishable items don’t last as long in plastic alternative packaging (26%).

Responsibility should be shared

Businesses and consumers share a common goal to drive down overall plastic use in the ongoing fight against climate change. McDonald’s recently announced it will aim to “drastically reduce” plastic in all of its toys globally by 2025. 

When it comes to who bears responsibility to reduce plastic use, consumers think there is plenty to go around and believe brands/manufacturers (62%), every day people (59%), supermarkets/retailers (49%) and government (43%) all share some responsibility. 

Respondents cite supermarkets as not having made much progress in reducing plastic use in the last five years, with only one in four respondents reporting that they feel supermarkets have done a decent job tackling plastic, while 41% are hoping to see more progress. At the end of the day, consumers want to see a greater variety and number of plastic-free packaging options. And the research confirms that everyone – from manufacturers and supermarkets to brands and shoppers – needs to do more.

Today’s consumers are willing to adapt their behavior and re-evaluate how they choose, buy and consume goods – as well as which brands they will support. Consumers want to engage with brands that understand what’s important to them and can demonstrate that they share those common values. Businesses should take heed and understand their role and responsibility in addressing the growing climate change and sustainability fears of their consumers.