Consumers Demand Sustainable Products And Shopping Formats

Author: Ingrid

Mar. 07, 2024

Machinery

Retail Execs Didn’t Get the Memo

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Consumers and retailers are not on the same page when it comes to sustainable shopping. This is the key takeaway from a recent report produced by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Consumers and senior retail executives were surveyed in tandem to compare perceptions and preferences for sustainable products, shopping formats, and the influences driving sustainable purchase decisions.

The survey found that a significant disconnect between senior retail leaders and consumers exists when it comes to sustainability.

Not surprisingly, the sustainability imperative has been driven primarily by the consumer. A few forward-thinking retailers such as Patagonia and Levi’s have been pioneers in this field and should get the credit they deserve for giving conscious consumerism a bigger platform. Yet it’s the consumer—specifically the Gen Z consumer—that has elevated the sustainability conversation.

The recent study found that the Gen Z consumer has outsized influence on not only their Gen X parents but even their Boomer grandparents when it comes to sustainable shopping.

In the two years since First Insight’s first report on Gen Z and sustainability was published, Gen X consumers’ preference to shop sustainable brands increased by nearly 25% and their willingness to pay more for sustainable products increased by 42%. In fact, consumers across all generations—from Baby Boomers to Gen Z—are now willing to spend more for sustainable products. Just two years ago, only 58% of consumers across all generations were willing to spend more for sustainable options. Today, nearly 90% of Gen X consumers said that they would be willing to spend an extra 10% or more for sustainable products, compared to just over 34% two years ago.

Gen Z’s influence will only increase as the younger members of this cohort grow into adulthood. By 2030, Gen Z will represent 27% of the world’s income, surpassing Millennials by 2031, according to Insider.

Since this generation also supports brands that also support their own values and causes, it’s imperative that brands and retailers become aligned with theses consumers before it’s too late.

Senior retail executives appear to have little understanding of consumers’ preferences around sustainable offerings and shopping.

One of the most significant data points uncovered in the recent report is the fact that consumers across all generations are willing to pay more for sustainable products than retailers expect. Two-thirds of consumers say they will pay more for sustainable products, with equally two-thirds of retailers believing that consumers will not pay more for sustainable products. This conundrum could easily be alleviated if the retailers and brands simply listened to the voice of their customers to gain a greater understanding of how to price sustainable products before they hit the shelves.

Another interesting deviation was discovered around the importance sustainability plays when consumers choose to make purchases.

Almost 100% of the retailers surveyed believe that consumers rank brand name higher than product sustainability, when, in fact, a much lower percentage – 56% - of consumers rank brand name as somewhat or very important.

Likewise, only half of the senior retailer executives believe that sustainability is an important purchase consideration for consumers despite three-quarters of all consumers saying that it is somewhat or very important to them.

A desire to help the environment was found to be the primary reason consumers purchase sustainable products and brands. Almost 30% say they want to improve the environment, with 23% wishing to reduce production waste, 22% wishing to reduce their carbon footprint, and 17% concerned with animal welfare. Only 7% agree that they prefer to shop sustainably due to social signaling; in other words, to be recognized as being a good citizen. Retail executives rank social signaling nearly equal to improving the environment when asked why they believe consumers shop sustainably.

The good news is that almost 100% of the senior retail executives agree that consumers expect them to operate in a more sustainable way. But how?

We know from previous studies that the older generations—Millennials through Boomers—define sustainability primarily by the materials used to create a product. These include organic, naturally harvested fibers or products made from recycled materials. Sustainability to Gen Z, on the other hand, means sustainable manufacturing. Using predictive analytics, testing 3D digital samples prior to production, and refining ESG policies are winning tactics which can improve sustainability targets for many companies.

Consumers are giving retailers and brands the benefit of the doubt, with 60% agreeing that retailers are sufficiently transparent around their efforts to become more sustainable. It’s ironic that 100% of the senior retail executives think consumers assume the retailers are not transparent with their sustainability efforts.

Clearly, retailers must be more in sync with consumers on issues as critical as sustainability.

Listening more closely to the voice of the customer will enable retailers and brands to offer more than just performative measures when it comes to ESG priorities.

Gen Z’s sustainability priorities are expected to increase in importance as more and more members of this generation enter the workforce. Aligning with consumers on sustainability demands is simply better for business. Acting on consumers’ sustainable shopping preferences will guide retailers with better offering selection and more competitive pricing. Transparency around sustainability efforts will help brands and retailers differentiate themselves in the market, while testing consumer-validated merchandise can improve retailers’ sustainable product assortments and bottom lines.

With the high street and the fashion industry brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic, the ‘buy less, buy better’ ideology of generation Z – those aged 18 to 24 – could see the beginning of the end of fast fashion, new research suggests.

If generation Z’s habits are adopted by the population as a whole there could be a shift to consumers with a “divided wardrobe” – featuring rented items and others bought from resale vendors – becoming the new normal.

The research, carried out on behalf of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA) found from polling that during the pandemic, 28% of people are recycling or reusing more clothes than normal and 35% of women intend to buy fewer clothes in the future. The RSA is calling on the government to invest in sustainable fashion and manufacturers to be more responsible, following the research.

The RSA are also asking for enforced standards around how durable clothes are, plus a push towards a more circular localised economy within fashion.

This emphasis on sustainability, non mass-produced goods and uniqueness mirrors the consumer values of the younger generation whose attitude towards fashion has been shaped by the “Blue Planet effect”.

“Generation Z is discerning,” says Jeff Froom, co-author of Marketing to Gen Z. “[They’ve] grown up with more access to information from more sources than ever before. Inequality, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights are topics they’ve heard about for years.”

Kati Chitrakorn, retail and marketing editor at Vogue Business, said: “For today’s kids fashion is less about fitting in and more about making choices that reflect their own identity.”

Before the pandemic two-thirds of clothing was purchased in stores, but the 18+ group had already found alternatives to bricks and mortar (their sophisticated modes of consumption often outpacing what the high street could offer) shopping through online resale sites such as Poshmark, Grailed, Vestiaire Collective and clothing rental sites, all of which have seen a sales boost during lockdown. “Being able to ‘do something’ – upcycling, customising or reusing rather than discarding – lets younger people feel like they’re part of a movement,” says Chitrakorn “and that mindset has been popular even prior to the pandemic.”

“Young, values-oriented [shoppers] are looking for more responsible ways to consume,” explains Ceanne Fernandes-Wong, CEO of COCOON a luxury handbag rental service. “The pandemic has amplified this. More and more consumers will be comfortable with variety in their consumption choices - from buying new to circular options including rental and resale. A ‘divided wardrobe’ is inevitable.”

Sonia Lapinsky of retail consultants AlixPartners said: “Rental will continue to expand, given consumer sustainability consciousness and a reset in consumerism. We have all made do with a lot less for many weeks – enough to form new habits.”

Depop – a peer-to-peer shopping app that allows shoppers to buy secondhand items from each other – has seen a 90% increase in traffic since 1 April. In contrast, retail sales fell by a record 18.1% in the same month. “Generation Z want individuality and to reduce waste, Depop allows them to do both,” said a spokeswoman for the company.

“We definitely believe that this unique moment will encourage people to reconsider resale as an alternative to shopping ‘new’,” she says. “Our community has access to a vast inventory of pre-loved streetwear, vintage designer, one-of-a-kind creations and more that allows them to build their own identity and create their own story all as a sustainable choice. They have the financial incentive to buy and sell garments, rather than leaving them unused in a wardrobe or sending them to a landfill.”

But it’s not that simple. With retailers still working out what a re-opened store would look like (socially distanced shoppers in store, sales assistants behind plexiglass, compulsory masks, the question of changing rooms), post-corona resale and rental outfits will have the same issues. “Are they communicative and transparent regarding product handling processes and cleanliness?,” asks Lapinsky “If not, the consumer will likely remain skittish to pre-used garments and accessories.” However, e-commerce is still considered by many to be the safest way of shopping.

The future of fashion and retail is under debate. The RSA’s calls follow similar requests from fashion bodies calling for social and environmental sustainability.

On Thursday, the British Fashion Council and the Council of Fashion Designers of America released a statement requesting a reduction in the number of seasonal collections, clothes produced and travel. The sentiment was echoed in an open letter from designers and retailers led by Dries Van Noten that appeared early last week.

Consumers Demand Sustainable Products And Shopping Formats

Shopping habits of generation Z could spell end of fast fashion

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