Recycling (and Packaging) as a Proxy for Sustainability—the Consumer Perspective
As profiled in our latest report, Sustainability 2021: Environment and Society in Focus, we asked consumers to weigh in on a wide range of sustainability topics—ranging from those that link to environmental constructs (e.g., climate change, pollution, packaging or agriculture) to social issues (like economic vulnerability, social justice and labor). According to the report, most consumers see the environment and social well-being as two separate but equally important areas of need.
Since we saw the social side of sustainability as a rising area of importance in our previous sustainability research, one of the objectives of this year's study was to examine how social well-being and social justice fit into sustainability definitions for consumers: What this examination revealed was that while some consumers are connecting social issues with sustainability definitions, issues that fall under environmental concerns—even those as practical as recycling and packaging—often serve as a starting point for how consumers think about sustainability today.
Commenting on these topics in a recent podcast featuring highlights from the Sustainability 2021 report, Iva Naffziger, director of marketing research and strategic insights at The Hartman Group, notes,
“Consumers are definitely thinking about these social issues more, and they have a more nuanced understanding of them. And they consider them to be very important, both in general and specifically when deciding on foods and beverages that they want to purchase. And yet at the same time, they don't necessarily see these social areas as part of what sustainability means to them. So, for many people, sustainability still has strong environmental connotations.”
Responding, Alissa Chevallier, senior consultant on the Hartman Retainer Services team, said,
“That's right. And we also heard some consumers who fell somewhere in the middle—they would make connections between social well-being and sustainability. But the types of connections that they made were often limited to very concrete and tangible connections … What really stood out to me in our interviews with consumers was the emphasis that they placed on packaging—and on recyclable packaging, in particular—when they're talking about sustainability. Recycling, and recyclability, I would say, are so important to the way that consumers think about sustainability that they almost seem to stand in as a proxy for what sustainability means more broadly for many consumers.”
As quantitative measures of the importance of recycling and recyclability of packaging, Sustainability 2021 finds that 63% of consumers say that when purchasing products, it is important that packaging be recyclable, and 54% desire such packaging to be biodegradable. Of interest, 47% of consumers say that compostable packaging is important to them when purchasing products, up 7% from 2019.
With regard to Styrofoam, a full 63% of consumers say they avoid products packaged in Styrofoam or other packages that they cannot reuse, recycle or compost.
While packaging and recycling are among the sustainability concerns that consumers relate to most in their daily lives, Sustainability 2021 finds that consumers are becoming more sophisticated in how they define and understand sustainability.
Consumers increasingly connect the term “sustainability” with the environment specifically rather than defaulting to more literal definitions of the term. Moreover, as the focus on social issues grows and shifts, many consumers view social issues as a set of concerns separate from sustainability while recognizing points of intersection between them.
Consumers are coming to understand that large-scale action is needed, and they see companies and governments as the entities able to make the most difference.
Across the board, consumers see a role for companies in sustainability and believe that they should work to address a range of environmental and social issues, including pollution and climate change, supporting the national economy and implementing good labor practices, and working to reduce hunger and poverty.
More information on Sustainability 2021: Environment and Society in Focus is available here.