Shop Sustainably: Consumers’ Contribution to Mitigate Climate Change

Climate August 3, 2022

With an expected 20% of total retail sales to be executed online in 2022, the e-commerce market will reach $5.5 trillion in 2022 and continue to grow to $7.4 trillion by 2025, representing approximately 24% of all retail sales. Putting those ecommerce trillions into perspective, $5.5 trillion is more than any one country’s GDP, with only two exceptions – the US and China. 

Consumers make purchasing decisions every day and are demanding more information and more transparency about just exactly what they are buying. Where did this come from? Who made it? Were the people making it treated fairly? Did the company that produced this do so in a way that didn’t harm the planet? And finally, they often get to, is this product sustainable? Is it really?

A survey, fielded in the fourth quarter of 2021, from The Baker Retailing Center at The Wharton School examining the sustainability preferences of retail consumers showed that more than two thirds of them are willing to pay more for sustainable products. So, why is it so hard to find information on whether what you are buying is sustainable or not? 

One reason is: The available data is not standardized and is hard to compare. It is hard to discern what is good and what is bad due to the lack of benchmarks and/or thresholds around even what we would consider basic metrics, such as greenhouse gas emissions, gender diversity, energy consumption, waste creation, ocean acidification, and labor rights – just to name a few. 

Another reason is: Prioritizing which sustainability metric matters the most. The difficulty here is that the answer to that question is often a very personal one. Each person will have his/her own priorities for what matters most.

One thing is certain, when presenting sustainability metrics to consumers, companies will likely not be able to present every single metric that is important to the millions – sorry, billions – of consumers out there. So, let’s go back to the data on one topic the grand majority of consumers wants to know about: 75% of Gen Zs and 73% of Millennials agree that the world is at a tipping point in responding to climate change and that the future can go either way. But less than half (44% of Gen Zs and 43% of Millennials) are optimistic that the current level of efforts to protect and sustain the health of the planet will be effective, according to Deloitte’s Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, which was conducted across 46 countries and received over 23,000 responses.

Focusing here on climate change doesn’t mean we should or will ignore other important metrics that will contribute to measuring if we are on the path to a more sustainable world. But in addressing one topic that consumers are prioritizing, we believe we can reach them and hopefully pull them in to learn about other sustainability metrics as well. 

Within climate change, one area to focus on is carbon emissions, and specifically plans to reduce carbon emissions. It’s been noted in the news lately that carbon dioxide can be actually removed from the atmosphere, but removal efforts are not only not at a scale where they can make a dent in the emissions problem. Additionally, much lauded efforts like planting a trillion trees will fall heavily short considering forests can only be part of a long-term plan to curb global warming after that happens. Yale evolutionary biologist and ecologist Carla Staver testified at the Trillion Trees Act hearing: “Our primary focus must be reducing our dependence on fossil fuels,” she said, adding that any plausible attempt to limit global warming within our lifespan must also include forest protection and reforestation. “However, it is also crystal clear that tree planting alone will not fix our ongoing climate emergency,” she said. 

So back to reduction we go.

At Clarity AI, we base our approach on science and fact, and what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us is that reduction of carbon emissions is at least 90% of the answer to achieving the human-goal of being net-zero as a society by 2050. Achieving that goal would, in theory, limit global warming to a 1.5°C increase, which would avoid many of the catastrophic scenarios which have been laid out around global warming of more than that level. Holding global warming to an increase of only 1.5°C will require 2 things:

  1. Reducing emissions by 90-95% by 2050 (and by 50% by 2030)
  2. Removing the remaining 5-10% emissions that cannot be reduced with Carbon Dioxide Removal

Considering carbon emissions reduction is so important to mitigating climate change and that climate change is top of mind and a source of stress for Gen Z and Millennial consumers worldwide, we believe that presenting sustainability information on a company’s current carbon emissions and its level of commitment to curbing global warming is the right place to start showing consumers a way to Shop Sustainably™.

Appealing to consumers’ preferences is a classical way to increase purchases and if consumers follow their desire to shop sustainably, they will be contributing to mitigating climate change in a way that many have not yet considered or that many have considered to be too difficult due to the lack of quality sustainability information in the market. Additionally, as previously noted, more than two-thirds (68%) of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, which should be appealing to the brands selling sustainable items.

It cannot be implied or inferred that consumers can curb global warming only by changing their shopping habits. However, as much as 45% of emissions come from these goods we purchase on a daily basis, so consumers can apply pressure to companies that are not curbing carbon emissions effectively and/or do not have plans to curb them. 

And if consumers apply pressure with their dollars, they can also do it with their votes. Since only 11% of Gen Zs and 13% of Millennials think their governments are highly committed to addressing the climate emergency, we believe it’s only a matter of time before these consumers – voters – will apply more pressure to their respective governments. What we hope is that “matter of time” is extremely short, as climate change absolutely is an emergency, which the U.S. Senate has now deprioritized. Even with President Biden’s implied upcoming executive action, we believe change at the US federal level will need support from more than just one branch of government. And, we believe that showing sustainability data to consumers will not only allow them to shop responsibly, but also raise awareness to vote with sustainability in mind.

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