I’m the type of consumer who will take a chance on a product marketed as more sustainable – even if it costs more. The trouble is, I have gone back to conventional products when the sustainable option hasn’t met my expectations.
I love my Eco Egg, which I use in our washing machine (it is an oval containing refillable soap beads), but we are dairy farmers and – especially at this time of year – the Eco Egg alone does not clean our clothes. If I were using it on its own, I would have to wash our farm gear twice – maybe even three times – to get them as clean as when I use a standard cold wash detergent with a dash of Dettol cleanser and – if needed – a scoop of oxy powder. Which is more sustainable – using these extra products, or washing the same clothes more than once? I’m not sure, if I’m being honest.
When my kids were younger, I would bulk-buy eco-friendly nappies online. I thought these were good value and, while not as sustainable as reusable nappies, they were just as leak-proof as the supermarket brands. But those bamboo toothbrushes? Bristles would always fall out and get stuck in my gums. I still have the desire to make sustainable choices, but I am a bit wary of both their capabilities and whether they are always truly the more sustainable option.
A few months ago, I attended a webinar titled The Impact of Inflation on Consumer Desire for Sustainability. The webinar was organised by Lux Research – an American advisory firm focused on sustainable and commercially viable innovation in business – and featured Canadian anthropologist Ujwal Arkalgud. Ujwal is the author of Microcultures: Understanding the Consumer Forces that will Shape the Future of your Business. He is also executive vice-president of Lux Research.
Lux Research covers different areas of the world, including the UK, Germany and France, so it offers a global perspective on consumer behaviour. This particular webinar focused on the fact that inflation has taken away a lot of the consumer desire to purchase sustainable products.
In correspondence with Irish Country Living, Ujwal stresses that this doesn’t mean sustainability is no longer important. “This doesn’t mean that people no longer care about sustainability,” he says. “It just means the requirements for success are undergoing some changes.”
According to Lux, there are four main reasons why consumers are not currently buying more sustainable products:
We need to feel free to experiment with sustainable options. The price can hold us back from feeling like we can try them out and then opt out if they aren’t doing what they say on the label. If it works, it needs to be easy to make a repeat purchase (like the eco-friendly nappies I used to buy in bulk online). Ujwal says that Europeans have better accessibility than North Americans in this regard.
Consumers generally have a good understanding of sustainable products. We know that they may not work as well as their conventional alternatives or that we may need to make some kind of compromise with them. The shelf life might not be as long, or it may be missing an active ingredient.
3 Harm reduction
We love a good “natural” product, don’t we? For our babies, we want “natural” baby wipes, shampoos and lotions. But are “sustainable” chemicals safer for us? Does sustainability automatically equal safe?
The issue of waste is often put on the consumer – use less, waste less, buy products which will decrease your waste. Now, consumers are lobbing this back at manufacturers. They want to know how waste is being curbed through smart design and they are calling out wasteful business models.
Putting it all together
The desire for sustainability is still growing, but issues need to be tackled in order to make buying sustainable products easier for consumers – especially in the current economic climate.
“We don’t have the luxury of innovating in six months,” Ujwal said during the webinar. “There are gaps in knowledge right now, but there are also opportunities.”
To bring things to a more Irish context, a Mintel report on Sustainability in Food and Drink (2023) delved into consumer behaviour in the wake of increasing inflation. This report is UK-based, so takes Northern Ireland into account. Its research indicates that investing into sustainability is good for the long term, but not so relevant to most consumers at the moment.
Right now, cost is the biggest driver for consumer decision-making in shops, while future predictions (for 2026 onward) indicate sustainability will increasingly drive decision-making. When asked whether the rising cost of living has made sustainability in food and drink less important when making shopping decisions, 65% of respondents said that it has.
Dr Lynsey Hollywood is Ulster University’s Food and Drink Business Development Centre Manager. The centre features a state-of-the-art consumer insights lab, which is located at the Coleraine Campus of Ulster University, and a Food and Consumer Sensory Testing Suite. Here, they use virtual reality technology to test the consumer behaviour of their subjects. Lynsey says that while the research taking place is still, in many ways, in its infancy, it is providing a lot of rich and meaningful data.
“[It’s about] this whole idea of choice architecture,” she tells Irish Country Living. “There are so many influences in a shop; it can be hard to focus on specific factors. Our lab uses virtual reality to allow shoppers to explore the store and while they do that, they’re verbalising what they’re looking at and why they’re making the choices they are. This helps us really understand what consumers are looking for in terms of information or packaging design, price or positioning.”
Lynsey agrees that this is a confusing time for consumers with regards to sustainability, but maintains that price point is still the main decision-making aspect for shoppers on the island of Ireland.
“Consumers will filter out information and choose to look for the information they want,” she explains. “If they are health conscious, they will be looking for [nutritional] labelling. If they’re really into sustainability, they might be honing in on those new certification logos coming into play.”
Less of a priority
“Given the current cost of living crisis, the reality is that sustainability has become less of a priority [less of a priority for many],” she adds. “The reason is you might have to pay more for that product. Some sustainable choices aren’t as practical as they make out to be. Consumers will prioritise certain products they like, trust and use all the time as opposed to taking the risk on trying a new product.”
While sustainability might not be the current number one driver for Irish consumers, it doesn’t mean manufacturers and producers should ignore it. Innovation, research and development should be adding sustainability measures into the overall design of their products and should be clear in their marketing communications with consumers.
“I think [manufacturers and producers] know it will cost them, ultimately, to make unsustainable products and they are focused on driving change,” Lynsey says. “But it is a costly thing to do, and in time that cost gets passed on to the consumer.
“The other big thing here is trust,” she adds. “The Mintel report said that consumers don’t know how trustworthy most sustainability claims are, and I agree with that – we don’t know. In 2021, [Northern Ireland vegetable producers] Mash Direct launched an eco-label which displays how sustainable their packaging actually is, and this is a really good example of what works; they made it very easy for consumers. This is a frustrating area for the producer and the consumer because there is a lot of mixed messaging around what sustainability means.”
We speak with Bord Bia’s trends and insights specialist, Grace Binchy, with regards to Irish consumer attitudes to sustainability and inflation.