How Consumers Have Changed the Sustainability Game

Words by Connor Durkin

For decades, companies have tried to blame the climate crisis on consumers. However, according to The Carbon Majors Database, just twenty-five companies are responsible for fifty-one percent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and one hundred companies are culpable for seventy-one percent. Consumers have historically prioritized cost over sustainability; however, this mindset is changing. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental and climatic issues these companies pose to the world and choose to purchase sustainable products from sustainable companies. Studies conducted by IBM revealed that in 2021, sixty-two percent of consumers were willing to change their purchasing behaviours to help reduce negative impacts on the environment, which shows an increase from fifty-seven percent in 2019. As a result, companies are beginning to o re-evaluate their environmental strategies and produce a more sustainable products in efforts to accommodate an increasingly eco-conscious consumer.   

This concept is known as voting with your dollar. It is the idea of purchasing specific products or shopping from companies that align with your beliefs and values. The’ voting with your dollar’ approach is a catalyst for change in capitalistic societies as companies are motivated by attracting more consumers and making money. In recent years, the ‘voting with your dollar’ approach has expanded into the realm of sustainability as the public has become increasingly concerned about plastic pollution, the use of hazardous chemicals, carbon emissions, and the overarching threat of climate change. Public support for climate action has made national and global headlines within the past decade. Climate change protests around the globe demonstrate the increasing concern of consumers with respect to the climate. In April of 2017, on International Earth Day, the March for Science took place, where over one million protesters took to the streets in over 600 different marches. The marches responded to the Trump Administrations’ views on science and the misrepresentation and exclusion of scientific knowledge in policy decisions. Later, in March of 2019, the first international school strike for climate, led by Greta Thunberg, took place, with over a million protesters in attendance demanding a sustainable future.  

Within the past decade and specifically from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have been increasingly more environmentally motivated. The Worldwide Fund for Nature found that since 2016, there has been a seventy-one percent interest in the search for sustainable products. Further, BCG found that since the start of the pandemic, ninety percent of respondents said they were equally or more concerned about environmental issues. 

In combination with recent reports, public outcry at government inaction on the climate crisis has manifested in massive climate marches, protests, and strikes. These shows of support have prompted companies, specifically the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, fashion, and food industries, to re-evaluate their products, become more sustainable, and provide greater transparency in the process. This pressure has caused companies to compete with other companies to win over environmentally conscious consumers by improving their sustainability ratings. Companies are transforming their business-as-usual ways to start paying greater attention to every element of their value chain, from sourcing sustainable raw materials, providing sustainable transportation, becoming energy efficient and reducing unnecessary waste.  

Consumers are demanding more in the transition to a sustainable future, forcing companies to adopt environmentally friendly policies before governments adopt legal requirements for sustainability. Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company, has responded to the environmental pressure from consumers and has set ambitious sustainability goals. By 2039, Unilever has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in the entirety of its supply chain, from raw material to shelf, eleven years before goals set at the Paris Climate Accord to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Further, Unilever has agreed to invest over $1.1 billion in environmentally friendly initiatives over the next ten years, with one of the initiatives to label its 70,000 products with information on the environmental impact of the specific product.  

While the struggle of fighting for a sustainable and environmentally justice future is far from over, it is vital to recognize the small battles won. Consumers have immense control over companies’ ethical and environmental aspects, and consumers should use this power to harness a sustainable transition. The climate is changing rapidly and is posing severe risks to the longevity and prosperity of our collective future. Each product we buy and every decision we make have far-reaching effects beyond our existence. Together we can become more sustainable. The change starts with you and the choices you make.

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