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In The Middle Of A Pandemic, Do Consumers Really Care About Sustainability? Yes

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A few days ago, I was reading an article about Tiffany’s in Departures magazine, and its new approach to advertising its diamonds. The company believes that the processes and ethical sourcing of its diamonds are as important to consumers as size and weight. I also discovered, on the Departures web site, an article called “Luxury Sustainable Jeans Brands You Should Know.”

Brian and Steve both seemed to think this was an indulgence for the well-to-do (Departures Magazine is sent to American Express Platinum card holders) and that really, all retailers cared about was the cost savings associated with being “socially conscious.” That was certainly true a decade ago, the last time we surveyed retailers on their attitudes on the topic.

Five years ago, we ran a benchmark study on Home Delivery. We surveyed both retailers and consumers. The results were fascinating. Retailers found their business challenges to be all about getting faster (no surprise there) and less expensive. Only 8% of retailers rated taking more environmental concerns into consideration as a top-three challenge, vs. the 36% of consumers who found more eco-friendly or green options in home delivery as a most desirable benefit. This crossed all demographic groups. So even then, retailers and consumers were starting to get out of sync.

Notwithstanding whatever bizarreness the United States has been through in the past four years, and the annus horribilis of 2020 for most retailers everywhere, I do think the times are changing and generations shifting. Retailers ignore social consciousness at their peril. We are hoping to take a deep look at social responsibility in 2021 and look at the human and environmental cost of cheap products, expensive packaging and home delivery. I’ll bet real money social responsibility and environmental concerns have gone up on consumers’ wish list no matter how wealthy or poor they might be.

Why? The answer is simple. You don’t have to be a “tree hugger” to notice that a big part of the annus horribilis were wild fires in California and Australia, more named storms in the Atlantic Ocean than ever before, and as I sit here in Miami on a Sunday in November, my windows are closed and the air conditioner is running because it has been raining half the day and it’s still hot and humid. None of this is normal. And when you’ve just been through your third hurricane in two years…you start to think it’s more than just “God’s will.” You do start to wonder if those environmentalists have a point.

Sure, we can talk about raking the forests (which in English means cutting forest fire breaks and trimming brush, let’s be real, okay?) and the sloppiness of consumers with their consumption of single use plastics that now crowd the oceans, but it’s quite bigger than that.

We have observed in our Merchandising benchmarks that the age of retail leaders is considerably older than the consumers they serve. These leaders may think they’re serving Generation X and Baby Boomers, but “turn around and they’re tiny, turn around and they’re grown” Millennials and Generation Z are entering their peak spending years. And they care.

Not to date myself, but I can remember when former partner Nikki Baird was pregnant with her daughter Harper. Well, Harper just got her drivers license, and seeing a photo of her on Facebook with newly green hair standing with license in hand I realized just how quickly generations are changing.

Of course, the number one priority right now is getting out the other side of this pandemic and putting the supply chain back in order. As I write this, it still is NOT, and the virus is raging in the United States. But soon, as we rebuild and re-emerge, it’s probably a good idea to put sustainability and social responsibility on the agenda. I expect environmental stewardship and worker fairness to be very big issues in 2022. Are you ready? Some of the largest retailers, like Walmart, Target and others already have zero carbon footprints on their long-term agendas. A variety of pressures may cause them to once again, push the “go faster” button.

So, what do you think? Are you ready, or are you still thinking that lip service and some cost savings will be adequate? After all, I could be wrong. So I’m wondering. What do you think? Let us know.

Newsletter Articles November 24, 2020
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