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Just Who, Exactly, is the ‘Sustainable Shopper’?

Conscious consumerism is no longer the sole purview of tree-hugging hippies or acolytes of Gwyneth Paltrow.

While sustainability-minded consumers in the United States tend to be well-educated young transitionals who dwell in smaller, urban-area households, sales of sustainable products are accelerating “across the board,” according to Nielsen, which expects U.S. consumers to spend up to $150 billion on eco-friendly fast-moving consumer goods by 2021.

But as the retail landscape has evolved, so too have shoppers. As consumers become more discerning, they’re taking a greater interest in how products are made, how companies treat their workers and a “range of other sustainability-related areas of real concern,” the analytics firm wrote in an article last week. Which is why brands and retailers need to understand just who these so-called “sustainable consumers” are and how their values, lifestyle needs and motivations might shape their buying preferences in the years to come.

“Layering additional consumer data, whether from retailers or manufacturers or third parties, can help enrich segmentation profiles that deliver a detailed, yet strategic view of who your sustainable shopper is,” said Sarah Schmansky, vice president of U.S. fresh/health and wellness growth and strategy at Nielsen. “Are they seeking specific sustainability traits? Or are they accidental sustainable shoppers?”

Today, more than half (64 percent) of American households buy sustainable products, up four percentage points from a year ago, Nielsen said. Though most of these sales are concentrated in coastal cities such as Boston and Portland, Ore., heartlanders are not immune to the appeal of organic, recycled or cruelty-free, particularly when viewing their choices through a lens of “healthy for me and healthy for we.” Emerging hubs for both sustainability and millennial growth include Salt Lake City and Kansas City, the firm added.

As for how to interact with these consumers, Nielsen says sustainable shoppers are 67 percent more likely than their non-sustainable cohorts to use their devices to “sift through the myriad of information available” to make buying decisions. They’re also 11 percent more likely to shop online, 22 percent more prone to make purchases on a handheld device and 12 percent more likely to wield their devices when shopping in-store.

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“Those who are digitally engaged will turn to their devices to answer ‘what’s healthy for me and for the world?’ in order to help them purchase products that further their beliefs and avoid products that don’t,” said Julia Wilson, vice president of global responsibility and sustainability at Nielsen. “It’s clear that investing in a digital strategy to engage with these consumers will make a huge difference in how much your sustainability message resonates and breaks through the clutter.”