The COVID Year:
When Sustainable Intent Succumbed to Behavioral Reality

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As we pass the one-year mark of COVID-19 and the ensuing global lockdown, reflecting on all the ways life has changed can be sobering. For CPG brands and their consumers, for instance, the accelerated evolution of overall shopping habits and experience (increasingly omnichannel) seems to have had some unintended consequences.

The challenges of the disruption in the grocery supply chain caused by the pandemic might be seen as a disrupter to the adoption of sustainable shopping as well. Or that, at least, overall shopper behavior during the pandemic by necessity altered in terms of actual versus purchase intent.

Let’s look at a pre-pandemic survey, like one conducted by Accenture in mid-2019, which found over 80% of participants stated that it was “important or extremely important” for companies to design environmentally conscious products.

Once lockdown occurred, several things happened simultaneously that affected what we will call sustainable shopping: 

  • Stores were shuttered and click-and-deliver or click-and-collect became the rule rather than the exception. Where stores remained open, reusable shopping bags were banned for hygienic reasons. Even in municipalities who had outlawed single-use plastic shopping bags, for safety reasons, they were reverted to as the default. Environmentally conscious shoppers had no choice but to comply. 
  • For the sake of limiting possible contagion, self-serve bulk purchases were abandoned and sealed packages of products like fresh produce were offered instead, by necessity involving more packaging.
  • Hoarding or actual problems of supply resulted in scarcity of essential products, limiting choice dramatically. We all have stories involving pasta, flour and baker’s yeast, and more critically, toilet paper!

As we know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, foundational needs at the base of the pyramid, like nourishment, security, safety, and survival must be met first, before our behaviors and choices reflect higher orders of thinking. Simple availability of a product perceived as safe as well as necessary will be the most important benefit motivating consumer choice.

Many brands, up until 2020, had heard consumers loud and clear on their desire for more sustainable products. In 2018, 250 global companies committed publicly to significant long-term goals reducing plastic in their packaging, and others have pledged to adjust both their product ingredients, packaging materials as well as production processes to support a more sustainable world. Adoption of ESG (environment, social, and governance) goals placed sustainability as a high corporate priority even influencing investment calculations of performance measurement. 

Reviewing the experience of the pandemic, however, it might be tempting to view actual shopper data as proof that consumers’ need to obtain the basics, shopping in very new ways and increasingly online, seems to have transcended the inclination to prioritize sustainability in shopper choice. In this crisis, behavior might suggest sustainability wasn’t a priority.

But is it really that simple? Just because COVID-19 safety precautions have changed the way we shop, does this mean consumers care less about sustainability as a whole?

A late 2020 study conducted by McKinsey found that across 10,000 respondents in 10 countries, “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers now place significantly more value on food safety and hygiene. This is a key element of the next normal in packaging, whereby packaging suppliers will have to rethink materials and design requirements.” Overall, global consumers see sustainability as an increasingly important issue to address. Between 48-86% of participants surveyed in each country respectively still say they would be willing to pay more for sustainable packaging/products. At least they responded so in terms of claimed purchase intent. 

This is where the jury is still out.

Consumers may say that they are willing to pay more, or make other sacrifices, to support sustainable purchases as the pandemic loosens its grip on society as a whole. However, there still exists a balance in consumer choice within weighing safety, sustainability, availability, and price, particularly if the post-pandemic economy is weak and family grocery budgets are strapped. In an online shopping environment in which replenishment baskets are often refilled before a choice is made, and price and other comparisons are so easy to make, it remains to be seen what the impact will be on ecologically friendly products that brands continue to make.

Brands committed to sustainability for the long haul continue to invest in developing products that meet their long-term goals, including ones they are betting will influence consumer choice and drive sustainable behaviors again, as well as sales. And that is a good thing for consumers and for the planet.

One example is that of Colgate, faced with the incredible amount of waste that everyday plastic toothbrushes contribute to landfills worldwide due to their inability to be recycled. Openly acknowledging that they manufacture about 30% of those toothbrushes globally, Colgate is launching their new sustainable “Keep” toothbrush, a manual toothbrush that uses 80% less plastic, featuring a reusable aluminum handle designed to last a lifetime and replaceable plastic brush attachment. And in the interest of balancing sustainability and availability to influence consumers to part with their traditional toothbrushes, Colgate has ensured that the brush attachments for “Keep” are even priced comparably as well. Once the reusable handle is purchased, the replacement heads are affordable as well as sustainable.

Sustainability is by no means easy. The traditional packaging for snacks has included Mylar, which is not recyclable. General Mills recently launching their Nature Valley bars with 100% recyclable packaging as a first step in their pledge to switch entirely to sustainable packaging for their products by 2025. Recognizing that complex plastics (like those used for snack wrappers) are a growing issue for the environment – and with snacking habits soaring amid the pandemic – and hailed as a game-changer by some, this seemed a perfect opportunity for General Mills to make a popular product more sustainable. There is a hitch though. The unique polyethylene polymers that make up the wrapper are only recyclable in How2Cycle centers in many grocery stores where they must be dropped off, so they are still not nearly as sustainable as compostable wrappers. A few vocal consumers pointed out in social media that the practicality of in-store drop-off, as well as the alarming statistics of how few recyclable packages are actually ever recycled, made this a less supportable example of a brand acting in an environmentally sustainable way.

As we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic slowly but surely, it is comforting to see that there are consumers still concerned about the sustainability of their products, despite needs and priorities changing temporarily. But behavior beats purchase intent when it comes to the sweet spot of influencing consumer choice. More research is needed to determine the best ways to link sustainability awareness to environmentally supportive shopper choices, and Behaviorally is committed to helping our clients find effective ways to stay true to their ESG goals while developing and marketing sustainable new products that drive shopper growth.

Over the coming months, Behaviorally will continue to publish findings around sustainability and ways to overcome the disconnect in consumer intent versus consumer behavior. Watch for more as we uncover and share the ways to help brands define and diagnose the opportunities to influence sustainable choices.


Erin McAllister is the Marketing Coordinator at Behaviorally (Formerly PRS), and enjoys integrating her degree in Technical Communication & Environmental Science into her role whenever possible. She can usually be found listening to a podcast about ecology, human behavior, true crime, or history, resulting in a bizarre array of trivia knowledge that would only be useful on Jeopardy.

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