From the Effects of Consumption to Global Warming and Social Justice: What’s Next in Sustainability?


We all know how COVID-19 changed the public’s perceptions of health and wellness in countless ways, but looking forward, another pandemic-tempered, looming change in attitudes and behavior awaits us culturally—namely, the multi-dimensional topic of sustainability and how consumer perceptions of the concept have changed.

While health and wellness trends have been all-encompassing in terms of impact on both public and private spheres during the pandemic, the topic of sustainability (which was red-hot even prior to COVID-19) has been not so quietly reignited, fanned by broadening and emphatic demands for social justice, a renewed spotlight on climate change, and broadened concerns about environmental and social well-being.  

Even before the pandemic, Hartman Group research found that consumer sustainability concerns and beliefs—especially those linking to environmental responsibility—were emerging as true motivators to action among mainstream consumers rather than the “bonus” supporting role such worries have long played. In a major shift, and as observed in our most recent report on the topic (Sustainability: Beyond Business as Usual), consumers reported the environment as their major reason for purchasing sustainable or socially responsible products. Previously, this motivation was limited to only the most engaged consumers, with others focused on personal benefits first and the environment second. Measured quantitatively, that research found 51% of consumers saying they purchase sustainable products because they are better for the earth/environment, up 19 percentage points from 2017 (Figure 1).

Reason for Purchasing Sustainable or Socially Responsible Products

In step with this mainstream shift away from linking sustainability to personal benefits, we saw consumers increasingly connecting sustainability to concepts that centered on what is “right and just” for themselves, their families, their communities, their environments, and ultimately the future of humanity. In this new way of thinking, sustainability was seen as emerging as a complete moral system—a secular spirituality that guides decision-making with aims toward enhancing the greater good.

While consumers’ sense of responsibility to the greater good was broadly shared, they made it quite clear that companies and government had better get their act together when it comes to solving the big problems affecting the environment and their own personal health and safety. We suspect similar thinking might be prevalent today: Americans continue to be surrounded by stories tracing the impact of their consumption on society, the natural world, and their own communities. Whether it’s extreme weather events, worker treatment and social justice issues, animal welfare, or plastics in food (and in waste streams), the overarching narrative is one of systemic ills requiring urgent action.

Among many concerns and sentiments uncovered in the report, Sustainability: Beyond Business as Usual identified several key issues, components of which we are investigating in our update of this research that is currently underway in our Sustainability 2021 study. Key issues identified in late 2019 include:

A Shifting Sense of Responsibility. For years, and as measured in over 20 years of Hartman Group sustainability research, consumers have considered individuals primarily responsible for sustainability in their roles as both citizens and consumers. However, just prior to the pandemic, a sea change seems to have occurred. More consumers at that time considered sustainability the responsibility of government as the protector of both consumers and resources. Consumers continued to see companies as the cause of “the problem,” however, and therefore responsible for developing solutions (Figure 2).

Responsibility for Sustainability

Fear, Apprehension, and Anger. As highlighted in the Sustainability: Beyond Business as Usual report, sustainability as a multi-dimensional concept continued to be a key consumer concern and aspiration. Faced with actual and potential rollbacks of social and environmental protections under the current politics of that time, many consumers felt fear and anxiety about the future. They viewed their current moment as one of inaction at a critical time. Fear, anxiety, and regressive policies were catalyzing consumer desire for change—a condition we suspect has only increased in magnitude since that research.

The End of Recycling? A third key concept identified in the Sustainability: Beyond Business as Usual report found that sustainability consciousness should be seen as the way people link everyday life to “big problems.” Sustainability consciousness is not just about “eco-conscious consumers” and “the environment”; it is broadly distributed across society to include “everyday people.” As such, our report found that recycling was increasingly proving to be a dead end for sustainable behavior, since many municipalities were struggling to find a solution for curbside collection limitations and consumers were very aware of it. Consequently, conscientious consumption and even “zero waste” movements were rising as a means for closing the gap between sustainable aspirations and action.

While these and many other key issues represented a pre-pandemic call to action for even mainstream consumers in late 2019, we are now investigating what the effects of COVID-19 may have been on sustainability beliefs and attitudes since that research. Sustainability 2021 will explore how consumers are reconsidering what sustainability means to them, how different components of sustainability affect them personally, and who they hold responsible for addressing these challenges.

The events of 2020 have highlighted the need for community solutions to community problems, and this study will examine how this concept translates into the realm of sustainability. In addition, we’re investigating consumers’ appetite for being part of the solution, whether through personal actions/trade-offs, deployment of purchasing power, or support for policies that seek measurable progress. Other topics under examination in the Sustainability 2021 study include:

  • The importance of sustainability-related issues in shopping and purchasing decisions
  • How consumers differentiate between products, brands, and companies when assessing sustainability claims and certifications
  • Analysis of consumer prioritization of sustainability issues, including conservation, climate change, social justice, worker welfare, community engagement, packaging, food waste, and animal welfare
  • How brands can build credibility and trust, and earn permission to play in the sustainability space
  • The role of sustainability and transparency in shopping for food/beverage, personal care, household products, paper products, and pet food
  • The role of packaging and waste in consumer assessments of sustainability, including packaging types sought or avoided

More information on the Sustainability 2021 study is available here.