Consumers beginning to turn from sustainability due to cost-of-living pressures

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Sustainability is no longer as important to consumers as it once was. Image source: Alistair Berg/Getty Images
Sustainability is no longer as important to consumers as it once was. Image source: Alistair Berg/Getty Images

Related tags Sustainability cost of living crisis Recycling Packaging Consumer attitudes consumer behavior

Affordability is a growing concern among consumers, according to data released by the EY Future Consumer Index, with the cost-of-living crisis meaning that many are forced to be more careful with what they buy. When compared to previous surveys, the data suggests that affordability concerns are shifting attention away from sustainability.

As the cost-of-living crisis makes it more difficult for consumers to buy basic essentials, many people are putting affordability at the front and centre of their consumption choices.

Data published in the EY Future Consumer Index shows a clear consumer prioritisation of affordability, with sustainability seeing setbacks.

While in some areas, consumers remain just as concerned about sustainability as before, sometimes even more so, the overall picture presents a decline in sustainability concerns as people around the globe worry about how they can afford to live.

Cost-of-living pressures

The data in the EY Future Consumer Index clearly points to a greater emphasis on affordability among consumers.

Most consumers – 94% - are worried about the rising cost of living. In a food-specific context, 79% of consumers feel that food prices have increased within the last 3-4 months.

The survey, which questioned 21,000 consumers across 27 countries including China, France, Brazil, South Africa and the UK, found that for 35% of them affordability was the top priority, up from 25% in October 2022.

Out of the five consumer segments, “planet first,” saw the biggest decrease, going from 25% of consumers to 16% (the others being “experience first,” “society first,” “health first” and “affordability first”). This was particularly clear in China, the world’s second most populous country, where the “planet first” segment went from 35% to 18%.

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Cost of living pressures mean that many people are turning away from sustainability. Source: LordHenriVoton/Getty Images

Globally, “planet first” remained above “society first” and “experience first” in consumer priorities, but took a clear back seat to “health first” and “affordability first”.

In Europe, it was the UK, Sweden and Finland who saw the biggest decline in consumer concern about sustainability, Kristina Rogers, EY Global Consumer Leader, told FoodNavigator.

For example, UK respondents switching to sustainable alternatives has declined from 56% to 50%. Those making purchasing decisions based on environmental impact has declined from 56% to 51%.

“Those who think that businesses must ensure that all their suppliers meet high standards in regard to social and environmental practices has declined from 76% to 67%.

Sweden and Finland also have significant declines. For example, the data shows that 83% of Swedish respondents recycle or reuse packaging, down from 88% this time last year. Similarly, 62% of Finnish respondents actively try to reduce emissions, down from 70%.​”

Norway has also seen significant changes in attitudes. “While Norway hasn’t seen a large year-on-year decline, compared to May 2021, there is a considerable jump in attitudes to cost and sustainability. For example, 55% of respondents said it costs too much to purchase sustainable products, up from only 36% in May 2021.

Likewise, only 26% of Norwegian respondents are willing to pay more if products are produced in a sustainable way, versus 45% in May 2021​.”

Overall, consumers’ concerns about affordability meant that sustainability suffered significantly as a priority.

Turning away from sustainability

Many of the consumer trends that suggest a desire to live a more sustainable life remain high, with some even growing.

For example, in November 2022’s EY Future Consumer Index, 82% of consumers were reusing plastic bags, compared with 84% in May 2023.

Other trends have stayed the same. In both November and May, 79% of consumers have said that they try to repurpose or recycle products after use, and 83% of consumers have said that they try to conserve water.

However, there is a significant overall decrease in concerns about sustainability, especially when it comes to the bigger questions.

In November 2022, 53% of consumers said that purchasing and behaving sustainably is a “guiding principle” of their lives, compared to 51% in May 2023. In November, 60% of consumers said they would pay more attention to the environmental impact of their consumption, compared with 59% in May.

Perhaps more importantly, in November 44% of consumers were willing to pay more if a product was sustainable, compared to 42% in May. As of November 67% of consumers were deterred by high prices from buying sustainable products, while in May 68% were.

While most of these changes are fairly incremental, the trend is definitely going against sustainability. The cost-of-living crisis may pay a significant role in this.

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