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Consumers and sustainability

Key findings

  • The majority of consumers express concern about environmental issues, with a broadly even split into those who are very worried, fairly worried or just a little worried. 

  • For some products, about two-fifths of consumers have made a purchasing decision based on sustainability considerations, but cost and availability are the most commonly cited barriers to buying more sustainably. 

  • Younger consumers were the most likely to report having boycotted a product or business because of environmental concerns, whilst older consumers were the most likely to report having recycled or donated.

Concern about sustainability issues doesn’t mean consumers change their buying behaviour

Most consumers express some worry about issues related to sustainability, including climate change, pollution and biodiversity and habitat loss. Concern was at a similar level for each of these issues, with around 3 in 10 saying they are very worried about each. Only a small minority said that they were not at all worried about these issues (12% for climate change, 9% for pollution and 10% for biodiversity/habitat loss).  Overall, 94% of consumers said they were at least a little bit worried about at least one of these issues. 

Whilst reported concern about the environment is high, we also wanted to explore whether consumers have taken action in their consumption habits across a number of sectors in light of those concerns. 

A majority of consumers had at least considered making a more sustainable choice in their purchasing decisions in recent years, but far fewer had actually done so. The proportion of consumers who had chosen a purchase because of sustainability considerations ranged from 19% to 41% depending on the product type. 

Cost and availability are common barriers to buying more sustainably

Given the gap between concerns and behaviour it’s important to understand why consumers may not be making more sustainable choices more frequently. We can’t rule out that there is a social desirability bias in our survey - people say they care because they think they ought to, but in reality they are less concerned. 

However, many consumers report facing barriers when trying to make a sustainable choice and this may explain the gap between concern and action. Of those who had made or considered making a more sustainable purchase, the most commonly cited barrier was cost. Just under two-fifths (37%) say they had often found sustainable options too expensive, and a further 50% say they sometimes find this. 

Availability of more sustainable options was another common barrier, with three in ten (29%) saying that this had often been a barrier to them buying more sustainably. 

The Competition and Markets Authority is currently examining whether green claims can be misleading. Our survey indicates that this is an important issue for consumers as more than half (55%) said that they didn't believe the green claims of companies at least some of the time.

Most consumers say they have taken action out of sustainability concerns, but the action taken varies by age

A majority of consumers reported having taken action in their consumer decisions as a result of their concern about the environment. Recycling or donating items and repairing or making items last longer were the most common actions taken, with 68% and 60% respectively reporting having done this. Nearly half (46%) reported having bought second-hand or made something at home to be more sustainable. Sharing an item (e.g. car share) or boycotting a product or business were less common, but were still reported by 17% and 14% of consumers respectively.

Actions taken as a result of environmental concerns varied among groups, with certain types of action proving more popular among younger versus older consumers. 18-24 year olds were the most likely to report having boycotted a product or business due to concerns about its carbon footprint, with 23% having done this compared to as few as 12% in 45-54 year olds. Conversely, older consumers were more likely to report having recycled or donated an item compared to younger groups, with 78% of over 65s having done so compared to 59% of 18-24 year olds and 57% of 25-34 year olds.

Contact us

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please email Sophie Beesley at consumerinsight@which.co.uk 

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