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How to Serve Consumers With ‘Sustainable Aspirations’ Who ‘Struggle to Commit’

Despite a strong desire to support conscious brands, consumers are still weighing cost against concerns about environment and ethics. When it comes time to ring up at the register or checkout online, many shoppers are seeing price as a barrier to choosing the more sustainable option.

Brands and retailers still have a long way to go in optimizing the sustainable shopping experience, and appealing to consumers’ desires for competitive pricing and convenience, PFS and market research group Arlington found in a new survey. Meanwhile, shoppers may not be taking into account the added cost of doing business for brands that want to stock and ship in an eco-friendly manner, the e-commerce fulfillment provider found in the study of 4,000 U.S. and U.K. consumers.

While 67 percent of shoppers say conscious consumption is a priority—especially following the pandemic—they’re also contending with an impulse to price shop and spring for fast, free shipping. That means online marketplaces like Amazon and big-box stores like Walmart will often win out over smaller, more sustainable players, the survey found.

While 48 percent of shoppers have become more conscious of how their online shopping habits impact the environment than they were pre-pandemic, the added cost of environmentally friendly options is the top factor holding them back from parting with their dollars (35 percent). Most shoppers (54 percent) said they would be willing to wait longer for deliveries if brands committed to carbon-reducing delivery options, but a near-equal number (55 percent) said a combination of cost and convenience trumps their concern for the environment when it’s time to click “buy.”

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For their part, most retailers (68 percent) documented a notable uptick in consumer engagement with sustainable products. They believe that shoppers should expect to pay an average of 18 percent more for those items, illuminating a disconnect between shoppers’ desire to do good and retailers’ ability to facilitate low prices.

The majority (59 percent) of retailers said the added expense of offering more sustainable delivery and packaging is holding them back from offering those shipping options to shoppers, and 60 percent believe most consumers have never considered the impact that the cycle of online ordering and returns has on the environment—or their bottom lines. In fact, 38 percent of respondents copped to over-purchasing online because they knew they could return items for free.

While retailers’ role in supporting sustainability “cannot be underestimated,” PFS wrote, 73 percent of retail respondents believe the onus should fall on large and multi-national brands with the ability to create a larger impact, a la Amazon, Walmart and others. Their efforts are seen as falling short by the broader retail community, PFS found, with 76 percent of U.S. players accusing these types of corporations of skirting by on the bare minimum sustainability buy-in.

Still, the majority (62 percent) of surveyed retailers of all sizes said their organizations had made commitments to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, and that they understand that these goals are playing an increasingly important role in consumer perception. For retailers for which sustainability programs have been placed on the back burner, consumer demographics were cited as a reason. For example, big box stores believe that their shoppers are primarily concerned with low prices and deals—a different value proposition than retailers that offer luxury or ethically produced products.

“Matching increasing consumer desire to be more sustainable is best achieved by retailers who provide their customers with choice,” Patrick Lowe, area vice president of business management at PFS, wrote, noting that the objective is “easier said than done.”

“It is clear customers share sustainable aspirations, yet struggle to commit, particularly when it isn’t convenient,” he added. Moving forward, retailers must ensure that they remove friction points to the consumer experience, and omnichannel experiences like buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) or curbside pickup can augment their attempts to provide fast, low-cost or free shipping without hurting their bottom lines or perpetuating the cycle of costly online returns.

“Whether you are a digitally native brand or a store with an established brick-and-mortar presence, you should consider engaging both avenues in order to expand options and equip customers to choose how they shop,” he said.