Deloitte: Cost of living driving sustainable consumerism

Emily Cromwell is the ESG lead for the consumer industry at Deloitte UK
Emily Cromwell, ESG lead for consumer industry at Deloitte UK, says consumers are making more sustainable choices, partly driven by cost-of-living crisis

We often hear the argument that leading a more sustainable lifestyle can cost consumers more, which could be a barrier to progress and also create a sustainability gap.

Take EVs for instance. There is a high initial cost of ownership, and purchasers tend to be from wealthier backgrounds and have their own home, meaning they can install home chargers. Many people simply do not have the ability to switch to an EV.

However, there are some sustainability initiatives that everyone can access that are also easier on the pocket.

When it comes to clothing, for instance, more people are harking back to the Second World War mantra ‘make do and mend’ – a British government initiative introduced during rationing of new clothes between 1941 and 1949.

With more consumers looking to repair, reimagine or recycle their clothing, that can mean a surplus of shoes and shirts on the shelves, and the EU has stepped in to ban the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear.

With textile consumption the fourth highest impact on the environment in Europe after food, housing and transport, members of the European parliament said it was time to end the model of “take, make, dispose, that is so harmful to our planet”.

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This change in consumer behaviours is backed up by research from Deloitte that showed over half of consumers (55%) repaired an item instead of replacing it and 46% bought second hand or refurbished items. In addition, 76% say they would consider using a repair service. 

All of these stats are slightly higher than the previous year, showing an upward trend.

Is this a sign of consumers making greener choices or is it the current economic climate?

Emily Cromwell is the ESG lead for the consumer industry at Deloitte UK. Here she shares her views based on advising clients across the fashion, luxury and retail space on a range of sustainability issues including decarbonisation, sustainability strategy, and circularity.

What is the priority for consumers today and is sustainability high on the list?

The cost-of-living crisis is front of mind when it comes to people’s buying habits, and we have seen consumers make sustainable choices that also help them to spend less this year. For instance, circularity has become more prevalent than it was last year, with 55% of consumers repairing an item instead of replacing it and almost half (46%) buying second hand or refurbished items. 

The EU recently banned the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear and said it was time to end the model of ‘take, make, dispose’. While we’re yet to see if other countries follow suit, circularity must become part of the way people interact with the things they buy. It’s not just about creating new sustainable products, it’s also about creating things that can be used and reused and helping people to understand how to repair, care for and even share products. One example we’re seeing in retail, is a shift from buying products to renting them online. Some companies have used this model to steer away from pure purchasing, in a bid to maximise the value they can get from a product and drive down cost for customers.

While cost is the biggest barrier to consumers adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, there are signs they want to make green choices and prioritise the planet. One in three consumers stopped purchasing brands and products because of sustainability-related concerns in 2023. Consumer attitudes to brands and products are changing and on top of this, there is pressure from investors and employees to accelerate sustainable practices. Companies need to get ahead of the game when it comes to making tangible change, in order to attract and retain their customer base.

How do companies encourage customers to make better choices and adopt more sustainable habits in the long term?

Our research shows us that consumers want businesses and institutions to take the lead in supporting them to adopt more environmentally friendly habits. Most companies mention sustainability in advertising and marketing campaigns now, but it’s not yet clear to people how they can distinguish which companies are walking the walk when it comes to being truly sustainable. It’s therefore difficult for consumers to understand how to make the right choices themselves. 

Trust will play a huge part in changing buying habits and impacting behaviours. Consumers say their trust in brands would be improved if they had a transparent, accountable and socially and environmentally responsible supply chain, and if they target net-zero by reducing carbon emissions, rather than relying on offsets.

A third (34%) of consumers said that their trust in brands would be improved if they were recognised as an ethical or sustainable provider by an independent third party. Consumers want this to go a step further than just outlining what is or isn’t sustainable, they want to ensure companies improve the goods and services available to them. 35% also said they want more regulation requiring companies to improve options for consumers. 

Businesses can get ahead of the curve in building trust and encouraging sustainable habits by being transparent and showing people tangible examples of how they are innovating and changing. Particularly when it comes to retail businesses, creating and maintaining brand loyalty is extremely important in having an impact on behavioural change. 

It’s key that businesses work together with policymakers to create more transparency around sustainability credentials. They also need to make sustainable choices more affordable for people and share better information around the impact of buying choices on the environment. These factors will be key to support a long-term change in consumer behaviour. 

What are they key challenges for businesses when it comes to producing more sustainable products and integrating sustainable practices?

Cost is clearly a deciding factor in whether customers make sustainable choices, and current inflationary pressures are also creating a challenge for businesses in producing products that are cost effective, affordable and sustainable. This kind of shift requires wholesale business transformation and having the finance available to do so, it also requires businesses to decide which sustainability issues to prioritise and where to start. 

Of those consumers not adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, almost 60% say it’s down to a lack of interest in sustainability. This is another challenge businesses need to consider. It’s not just about creating affordable and attractive products or services; businesses may now feel the added responsibility of helping to engage customers on the importance of making sustainable choices and understanding why they should do so. 

As well as making sure you have the products or services people want to buy, you also must ensure you are the company they want to buy them from. Consumers are clearly mindful of a brand’s reputation for being green, and business leaders need to keep this front of mind and integrate sustainability into their strategy and actions as a firm. It’s not just a case of doing the right thing for the planet anymore, prioritising sustainability is now key to the survival and success of business.

What are the top three actions businesses should take to start making sustainability a priority?

First, they need to understand the value of sustainable transformation and the opportunities or upside to taking this action, as well as the risks of inaction. This will help to drive support and activation within the business. It’s difficult for businesses to prioritise sustainability when they don’t have a clear picture of the effect they might be having on people and the planet, or of the impact on their own operations and supply chain.

Second, businesses should discuss and agree their vision and ambition. It’s impossible to take action without a clear direction of travel, and that means having conversations about how the business needs to change and mobilising the right resources. Companies should make sure they have agreed a clear ambition for change that they can share with their business, investors and customers. 

Lastly, they will need to develop a tangible and transparent plan for how they are going to get there. The world is not short of publicly stated commitments and targets, but for customers to trust these statements there needs to be a clear plan for how they are going to get there. This goes beyond just looking at how they are going to reduce emissions - although that’s a good place to start - to how they are going to transition the way they do business, in everything from production to governance. 

What could the opportunities be for companies that get it right?

Those that put together a clear plan now could see better attraction and retention of customers, employees and investors in future. Businesses that ensure their operations as well as their products are more sustainable, will also make themselves more resilient against climate and nature risks. For example, thinking about things like the location of sites exposed to extreme weather risks. 

In future, with the introduction of more regulation, companies may also need to integrate sustainable practices or meet certain standards in order to be able to trade in other markets. With this in mind, innovating is key for businesses in having as much scope as possible for operations and growth. On top of all of that, in order to see real change in the coming years, it is imperative that as businesses, we all do our bit to ensure we are working towards a more sustainable future.

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