Woman shopping in a plastic free shop

Sustainable shopping: How to lead by example

In an inspiring sign of the times, the medals at this year’s Tokyo Olympics were made from gold, silver and bronze recovered from the nation’s e-waste. The message? Things don’t have to be brand new to be incredibly valuable. In fact, with environmental concerns now top-of-mind for many consumers, it seems that products and services that are sustainable by design are now the most valuable commodities of all. 

Many businesses are looking to do what they know to be the right thing whilst still being successful. But pushing for a fairer, cleaner and more sustainable trading space for all takes vision, commitment and hard work. 

Here we explore the consumer trends relating to sustainability, examining how the sustainable shopping movement fits into the wider trends we’re seeing and how businesses can respond to ensure they are able to not just survive, but thrive, in a landscape where people are buying less.

The world is moving to sustainable 

From the move towards zero-emissions vehicles to supporting businesses that align with our values and the increasing rejection of throwaway culture, recent years have seen an explosion in mindfulness concerning how we think, feel and act as consumers.

When it comes to shopping, this change in mindset means rejecting throwaway culture and buying more mindfully. Where in the nineties and noughties it may have been viewed by some with distaste, today shopping at charity shops and car boots and their online equivalents isn’t just socially acceptable - it’s cool. 

In an ideal world, our homes would only contain things that we either need, or feel a powerful connection with. In the wider world, product lifecycles are finally becoming longer, with ‘right to repair’ legislation being introduced in the UK, EU and certain US states to penalise companies who make electronics and other products that cannot be repaired.

Elsewhere, your customers are freecycling; swapping, sharing and selling items within their local communities, and using apps to buy and rent fashion at dramatically reduced costs. All of this helps create the end of ownership and a more circular economy.

Three approaches to profitable sustainability

According to the Harvard Business Review, there are three main ways to make a sustainable business profitable: 

  1. Invest heavily in creating a more sustainable business that will lead to significantly lower costs and higher yields in the long term.
  2. Start with small changes that generate substantial savings, which can then be invested back into the business’s sustainability strategy.
  3. Helping your suppliers and customers become more sustainable in a way your competitors find it hard to emulate. 

The pandemic has accelerated changing consumer behaviours

It’s important to note that this is a great time to step up into better, more ethical business practices. The pandemic has seen consumers adopt several new buying behaviours, including spending more consciously and shopping with small, local and independent suppliers. On the other side of the coin, more and more business owners are being drawn areas such as smarter ways of farming and artisanal methods of production.

In food and drink, changing consumer trends are making the sector more sustainable, almost by default. At this point, it’s clear that the passion for veganism is not a short-lived trend. According to Veganuary, more than half of UK adults have now at least dabbled in plant-based alternatives. While it’s worth noting that plant-based and organic foods remain out of reach to many low-income households, the move towards more sustainable - and affordable - healthy food and drink is a journey the industry is on as a whole.

Subscriptions are also a growing trend with new research from Barclaycard Payments, showing that digital and ‘deliver to door’ products and services are now such an integral part of Brits’ daily lives that eight in 10 UK households are signed up to at least one subscription service – up 25 per cent year-on-year. And they in turn are fuelling sustainability changes, with 45 per cent claiming their subscriptions discourage them from buying products unnecessarily.

Marc Pettican, President of Barclaycard Payments, said: “Lockdown provided a catalyst for many changes to consumer behaviours, including our love of subscriptions and spending more locally. With sustainability on the agenda for many, businesses are looking at how to adapt their ways of working for the better whilst also tapping into these everyday consumer changes. It’s all about starting small and making little changes where possible. How we can all do business in a more sustainable way is crucial for the future and something we all need to give careful consideration to.”