Retail & E-Commerce

For Many Shoppers, the Most Sustainable Action Is to Buy Less

Retail and e-commerce analyst Claire Tassin examines consumers’ opinions on the most impactful actions retailers can take to be more sustainable

Graphic conveying sustainability in retail
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Kelly Rice

This is part of Morning Consult’s What Sustainability Means to Consumers research, which gathers the views of roughly 2,200 U.S. adults on what sustainable actions consumers expect from the brands they purchase from.

Consumers believe the most important action retailers and brands can take to be more sustainable is to sell high-quality, long-lasting products that don’t need to be replaced, while more commonplace brand actions, like moving toward recyclable packaging, are seen as far less important. This runs at odds with what most mass-market retailers can deliver and what most shoppers can afford. But brands can help shoppers mitigate the impact of their consumption by creating frameworks that help both the industry and consumers make decisions around sustainability.

Download the What Sustainability Means to Consumers: Retail & E-commerce report here.

Retail and e-commerce brand leaders face immense pressure to bring their organizations into a more sustainable future. To help with that decision-making, Morning Consult measured and defined the importance of sustainability from the shopper’s point of view and identified the actions retail and e-commerce brands need to take to ensure their sustainability initiatives hit the mark.

We found that 70% of U.S. adults say they are concerned about climate change, but fewer (6 in 10) are concerned about retail’s role in climate change. Consumers’ sustainability concerns are ambiguous, lacking specificity about the issues and actions the brands they shop from should pursue, yet a plurality of shoppers are willing to spend more on brands with sustainable practices. For consumer brands planting a stake in the ground to prove their environmental bona fides, there’s enormous white space to define what that means for your brand and educate customers on why they should care.

Consumers prioritize product quality in evaluating a brand’s sustainability efforts

The real challenge for retail and e-commerce brands is that the primary action consumers can take — as well as the action they evaluate as most sustainable from brands — is prioritizing product quality and longevity to avoid unnecessary consumption. But the reality of rising material and manufacturing costs means new, high-quality products are out of reach for many right now, or at least would require a significant decrease in goods consumption as a trade-off. Generationally, the importance of quality increases with age; baby boomers have seen this decline firsthand over the course of their lifetimes. 

Respondents rated the importance of the following sustainable actions that retail brands can take:

Survey conducted June 24-28, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,200 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. A score of 100 indicates that action has an average likelihood of being considered the most important to a given respondent. A score of 200 indicates the action is twice as likely as average, while a score of 50 indicates it is half as likely to be considered the most important.

Beyond quality, brands’ ability to ship products to avoid damage in transit is also a priority for consumers. While no one likes to open a shipment to see it filled with packing peanuts (as this writer did recently), securely packed goods that help avoid the pain and waste of returns and replacements are important to consumers. 

Criticism earlier this summer of the United States Postal Service’s reliance on gas over electric vehicles for its new fleet didn’t reflect consumer priorities: Use of electric vehicles for deliveries was the least important brand sustainability action tested. Shoppers don’t usually get to choose their shipping provider or mode of transport for delivered goods, so this is not yet part of their consideration set.  

Ultimately, anti-consumerism is the most sustainable practice

It’s clear that for many people, the most universally important sustainability action has an anti-consumerism bent to it: buying fewer things that last longer, thereby ratcheting down demand and related strain on resources. Only after the basics of quality and safe shipping are covered are shoppers interested in environmentally safe materials and recycled products. 

But a fascinating conundrum is that when looking at the importance of brand sustainability actions to more niche groups, the most popular actions are even more important to people who are not concerned about retail’s impact on climate change. For almost every other category, this cohort finds brand actions less important than other groups do — like in the case of low-emissions manufacturing and carbon offsets. These individuals don’t see retail’s impact on climate change as a problem, so the more direct solutions don’t rate as important. The irony is that the most sustainable practice — shopping less — is so much more important to this group, though sustainability is not their motivation to buy long-lasting, quality products. 

Respondents rated the importance of the following sustainable actions that retail brands can take:

Survey conducted June 24-28, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,200 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. A score of 100 indicates that action has an average likelihood of being considered the most important to a given respondent. A score of 200 indicates the action is twice as likely as average, while a score of 50 indicates it is half as likely to be considered the most important.

Consumption reducers (individuals who try to buy less to be more sustainable) and those concerned about retail’s role in climate change are more interested in brand actions that mitigate the impact of their consumption. Here, using recycled and environmentally safe materials are attractive actions that these customers will be more compelled to pay a premium for. 

Retail’s role in combating climate change fits more squarely in mitigating the effects of consumerism than embracing an anti-consumption stance — few brands can afford to pull off a “buy less” business strategy. A more sensible posture for most brands is to help shoppers mitigate the environmental impact of their consumption. Touting green manufacturing and product or packaging recyclability is achievable for most brands and relevant to a wide swath of consumers. 

However, the complexity of modern supply chains makes it truly hard to make verifiable claims about products’ environmental impact, as there is not a consistent set of standards that shoppers can use to evaluate sustainability. One brand may tout low carbon emissions (whatever that means); another may get into the intricacies of the denim dye process. But many brands can work toward a more consistent rubric, like a “nutrition label” for sustainability, to make it easier for both the industry and shoppers to make effective evaluations.