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Vegan? Recycled? Eco-Friendly? Survey Reveals the Sustainability Buzzwords Shoe Shoppers Value Most

The Footwear Distributers and Retailers of America (FDRA) teamed with First Insight to release a 1,000-consumer shoe sustainability survey this week, centering on the factors that could drive shoppers toward greener kicks.

“Shoe companies helped us formulate this to shine a light into blind spots,” FDRA senior vice president Andy Polk said of the survey. “The results and analysis are in-depth and will help our industry focus and prioritize products, processes and efforts on what consumers care most about to better hit the mark.”

“The focus on sustainability continues to rise and accelerate in society and in retail,” said Gretchen Jezerc, First Insight senior vice president of marketing, The product decision platform’s analysis aims to help brands create products that match shopper values and use clear language that resonates with them, she added.

It turns out that semantics indeed play a role when it comes to shoe sustainability marketing, with 46 percent of survey respondents choosing the term “eco-friendly” as their preferred product descriptor. Runners-up included sustainable (37 percent), responsibly sourced (27 percent), environmentally preferred (21 percent) and eco-conscious (20 percent). One-fifth of shoppers said that none of the terms resonated with them when making a decision at retail.

When it comes to material innovation, one category captured consumer interest beyond all others. “Consumers view the term ‘recycled’ as the most sustainable material that brands should highlight and market,” followed by biodegradable, natural and bio-based, they wrote.

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Durability is ranked as the most important factor denoting sustainability in footwear, with 65 percent of surveyed consumers saying that shoes should last longer than a year to be considered durable, according ot the survey. One-third of respondents said shoes should last one to two years to deserve the distinction, while 32 percent expect footwear to hold up for three years or more. More than one-fifth of shoppers characterized a durable shoe as one that lasts between 7-11 months, while 14 percent said a pair should not wear out before six months.

One term that isn’t hitting home is “vegan,” the pair found, noting that the vast majority (72 percent) of respondents want more information from brands about these materials and their properties.

Touching on the concern likely dominating board room conversations, 64 percent of consumers affirmed that they would be willing to pay more for sustainable shoes if those products are marketed correctly. While the majority of shoppers would be willing to loosen their purse strings, in most cases, that promise doesn’t amount to much. Thirty-five percent said they’d be willing to pay just $1-$5 more for sustainable shoes, while 16 percent said they would pay $6-$10 more and 13 percent said they would spend more than $10 for a greener product.

When it comes to cutting carbon cost through slower shipping, 80 percent of shoppers said they would be willing to wait three or more days if they were incentivized by brands. More than two-fifths of respondents said that a 10 percent off coupon to be used on a future purchase would do the trick, while 19 percent favored $1 off their current purchase. One-fifth said that points toward a reward or loyalty program would prompt them to opt for slower shipping.

Understanding sustainable shoppers

Meanwhile, an AnalyticsIQ survey of 243 million U.S. consumers over the age of 18 found that three-quarters prefer eco-friendly brands, but only 40 percent are willing to pay more money for a green product.

Understanding shoppers’ propensity to purchase goods and use services marketed as sustainable means taking into account their ages, lifestyles, political leanings, education levels and career types, among other factors, Scarlett Shipp, chief operations officer for the consumer data science firm, told Sourcing Journal.

Survey data showed that “sustainable living spenders”—the consumer group most attuned to environmental concerns when shopping—are older, more affluent, and vastly more female than their peers, making up nearly 22 percent of respondents.

“When we did the research, we found that many people may want to be more conscious in their spend from an environmental perspective, but often it’s more expensive to make that choice,” Shipp said. “This is the population that can put their money where their mouth is,” namely, a cohort with a median age of 52 largely made up by women (82 percent).

More than 45 percent of these conscious shoppers have a bachelor’s degree, she added. Nearly two-fifths are married, and nearly 70 percent own homes. Just under 10 percent of these shoppers characterize themselves as blue collar workers, and the demographic’s average annual income topped $120,000, 37 percent higher than the average U.S. adult, allowing these consumers to spend 23 percent more each year on discretionary items.

The data illustrates how this group of shoppers with established lifestyles and careers might outspend “climate conscious” consumers, who take sustainability into account in their purchasing decisions—but only when they’re able. Representing more than 28 percent of the population with a median age of 39, just under 19 percent reported being married and more than one-third are renters, not homeowners, Shipp said.

“This group is in line with younger people who are just starting out and may not be married yet,” she said, or, they could be diverting most of their income into squirreling away money for a home, paying for higher education, or planning a wedding. “They could be in that stage of their life where a lot of their spending has to go towards saving,” rather than choosing the more climate conscious clothing option at retail, for example, Shipp said.

Just over 22 percent of this shopper contingent has a bachelor’s degree, Shipp added, and more than one-third identify as blue collar. Climate conscious shoppers are more diverse than their higher-spending counterparts, too, she said. More than 14 percent are African American, about 5 percent are Asian, and more than one-quarter are Latinx, while sustainable living spenders are more than 72 percent white.

Notably, the largest group of American shoppers is made up of “climate change skeptics,” AnalyticsIQ’s data showed, ringing in at more than 29 percent. These shoppers tend not to consider sustainability as a major factor in purchasing decisions, and their income level averages about $78,000—nearly $10,000 less than their climate conscious counterparts.

While the trend toward shopping sustainably falls generally along income lines, with more affluent consumers shelling out for ethically and environmentally conscious goods with greater consistency, Shipp said that the data actually reveals that shoppers’ consumption habits aren’t forever fixed, and could end up changing along with their lifestyles.

Climate conscious consumers, who are made up of younger generations of shoppers who have evinced an outsized concern about sustainability, “will make choices—when they can—that are in alignment with their beliefs,” she said by way of example. “As they grow in income, their ability to spend on sustainable products should move forward, too.”