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Behavior Change
Sustainability Drove Us to Buy Less This Holiday Season

As retail sales reportedly fell for the first time in 25 years, with particularly weak holiday sales, new research reveals that a new conscientiousness may be a central cause — with sustainability-concerned consumers buying less.

The British Retail Consortium has today revealed that retail sales fell for the first time in 25 years last year, with sales in November and December being particularly weak – falling 0.9 percent. The retail downturn has been blamed on consumer confidence, shaken by a no-deal Brexit and political instability. It is also felt that consumers were both more cautious and conscientious when it came to their holiday shopping. New research by brand purpose consultancy Given London reveals that a new conscientiousness may be a central cause, with consumers buying less due to sustainability concerns.

Commissioned with YouGov, the findings revealed that when it came to shopping for holiday gifts, 42 percent of us did so more sustainably in 2019. Of 2,004 consumers surveyed, 44 percent agreed that they were influenced by sustainability concerns in the way they shopped at Christmas. Significantly, for 51 percent of those, this meant buying fewer presents than in 2018.

Waste also remains a huge issue for consumers — and one where they believe brands should be doing more. 2 in 3 (65 percent) of those who shopped for Christmas gifts this year felt companies should be helping them minimize their waste — for example, by reducing the amount of packaging used in their products.

Whilst there’s still room for growth, the findings are encouraging news that environmental and sustainability messages are not only reaching consumers, but are galvanizing them to take real action in the way they shop. Now, it’s on brands to respond.

Holiday 2019 — sustainable shopping meant buying less

The research assessed how consumers translated their concerns around sustainability and the environment into action over the holidays:

Becky Willan, Managing Director of Given London, said; “It’s perhaps unsurprising that sustainability concerns may have partly driven a slowdown in retail sales over the Christmas period. For retailers, it’s important that they discover the role sustainability can play in fueling business growth, rather than in simply slowing it down. This can be achieved through developing alternatives for consumers through sustainable innovation, and new business models that reflect a changing agenda. Our research is showing this is no longer a ‘nice to have’ for retailers.”

44 percent influenced by sustainability concerns, but more needs to be done to engage a broad audience

Altogether, the research revealed that a total of 44 percent of consumers agreed that sustainability concerns had influenced the way they had shopped for holiday gifts.

Some consumer groups were more likely to care about sustainability than others. Of the women surveyed, 50 percent agreed their holiday shopping approach had been impacted by sustainability concerns, compared to 37 percent of men. Millennials (25- to 34-year-olds) also cared more; with 54 percent agreeing a desire to shop more sustainably had influenced them, compared with 39 percent of those over 55.

“Whilst it’s encouraging that just under half of consumers are taking action on issues of social responsibility and sustainability, work needs to be done to reach a broader audience,” Willan said. “Our research shows us that we need to make sustainability more accessible to older and lower-income groups, in particular.

“Sustainability cannot be an idea that you have to buy into or that feels exclusive in any way. To create meaningful change, and scalable models for business, sustainability has to be democratized.”

2 in 3 holiday shoppers wanted less packaging

When asked how brands could help them shop more sustainably, most consumers cited minimizing waste as an area for change. 2 in 3 (65 percent) holiday shoppers wanted companies to minimize waste — for example, by reducing the amount of packaging they used.

“The packaging problem isn’t a straightforward one,” Willan acknowledged. “It’s particularly challenging for online brands, as consumers have far less control on how their goods are packaged. Consumers understandably want less packaging, but [it] plays a crucial role; for example, in protecting goods against damage or obscuring private purchases. Given this, brands as a whole need to work to both eliminate obvious surplus, but also to educate consumers on packaging’s necessary benefits.”

Other popular actions companies should take to encourage sustainable shopping include:

  • Reducing the cost of sustainable products — 49 percent.

  • Offer a greater choice of sustainable products — 47 percent.

  • Make sustainable products more attractive and interesting — 31 percent.

  • Give me guidance on how to shop more sustainably (eg: through leaflets, information on website etc.) — 20 percent.