Who Are Sustainable Consumers and What Do They Actually Care About?

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We hear a lot about trends around sustainable consumers. In fact, we know from our research at Moonshot Collaborative that 41% of those purchasing plant-based foods say they’re motivated to do so to help the environment.

And that trend is reflected in the sales data, too. According to Harvard Business Review, sustainably-marketed products – across CPG categories – have been growing between five and six times faster than their more conventional counterparts.

So who are the consumers driving that growth? What does ‘sustainability’ mean to them, and which specific claims do they think are most important? Read on for answers to those questions, as well as insights on how your brand can harness sustainable trends to grow sales.

Who are sustainable consumers?

Based on our research, we know that interest in sustainability is very similar between genders. And although it varies somewhat given a person’s income level, geography within the country, and diet (vegan, vegetarian, meat reducer, etc.), the biggest difference in sustainable consumerism is clear: generation.

Younger generations – and Gen Z, in particular – tend to be much more attuned to environmental issues than older generations, which is reflected in their shopping habits. To give an example from a CPG behemoth, Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider described sustainability concerns among the company’s younger consumers as “off the charts” and as a big influence on their purchase decisions.  

Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash

Millennials also care about these issues. In fact, McKinsey found after studying millennials that most of their attitudes begin to temper as they age. But sustainability was an exception to that rule, and actually became a stronger attitude as time went on.

And, in keeping with concerns about sustainability trending younger, our research shows that Boomers are the most likely of any generation to say “not at all important” when asked how important sustainability is to them.

Another interesting dynamic at play in the generational conversation about sustainability is how generations take cues from one another. McKinsey explains, “On the one hand, you have Gen Z needing to influence their parents in order to get what they want. But on the other hand, if you look at the influence behaviors of Gen X, they’re much more likely to be influenced by the people sitting at the dinner table. So as they listen to their kids talk to them, they’re being influenced about what they want to buy for themselves.”

This finding has important implications as we think about sustainability as a purchase motivation. Such conversations among family members of differing ages enable ideas and priorities around sustainability to trickle upwards through generations.

What exactly does ‘sustainability’ mean to consumers?

Beyond the general umbrella of ‘sustainability,’ why do alt protein and sustainable consumers buy more sustainable products? We dug into that question with our panel, and found three key reasons: 

  1. “To make sure I’m buying healthier products” 
  2. “To leave a better planet for future generations” 
  3. “To reduce my personal environmental footprint”

sustainable consumer grocery shopping

It’s noteworthy that these motivations are a combination of personal interest – for one’s own health – and more altruistic reasons. We also know that 85% of those buying plant-based foods are motivated by health reasons, so it’s interesting to see that health and sustainability are, for some consumers, intimately related if not in some sense synonymous.

If those are the underlying motivations behind sustainable purchases, what specific claims are most impactful to consumers as they consider those purchases? Well, despite the existence of 20 plus eco-labels and environmental certifications for food in the United States, plant-based buyers seem to have quite a clear idea of what’s most important to them when it comes to sustainable packaging: recyclability.

Among our panel, 33% of respondents cite “recyclable” as the most important sustainable packaging claim that they actively look for when buying a new product. And in a sea of possible eco-claims for food products, that finding underscores that clear, familiar, and intuitive sustainability claims resonate with consumers.

How your brand can capitalize on sustainable consumer trends

According to our research, 53% of alt protein and sustainable consumers say they would buy more of a food product they buy regularly if it changed ingredients to be more sustainable. And more than 4 in 10 plant-based buyers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, including nearly 1 in 5 who are willing to pay a premium of 30% or more.

So how can your brand capitalize on this movement?

hands holding young plant
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

There are a few keys to doing so successfully. One is focus: McKinsey explains, based on their study of the topic, “Winners are engaging in bold transformations that are focused on maybe two or three areas, as opposed to ‘boiling the ocean’ on dozens of topics where it’s difficult to differentiate and emerge.” So choose your eco-battles wisely, and you’ll maximize both impact and consumer resonance.

Another key is to actively involve your customers in the sustainability process. According to David Allen, PepsiCo’s North American VP of Sustainability, consumers want to be involved in sustainability efforts, but it’s important to them that their actions in the process are clear, simple, and engaging. (Food Navigator

This relates back to our finding about recyclable packaging being an important claim to consumers: it’s a claim for which the required action from them – to recycle – is clear, simple, and engaging.

Finally, and maybe most importantly for your brand: in order to capitalize on sustainability trends, it’s vital to understand your ideal consumer and what matters most to her. Why does she care about sustainability? What packaging claims and environmental narratives resonate most with her, given her age, income, geography, ethnicity, household size, and diet? When you’re able to offer her the exact narrative that she needs in order to buy, you’ve struck green gold.

sustainable shopper looking at greens
Photo by Zoe Deal on Unsplash

Are you ready to learn what matters most to your ideal customer? Our recent report on plant-based buyers’ views of sustainability and sustainable packaging gets deep into the details, and offers key takeaways to help you implement these insights and grow your sales.

Learn more about the report here



Moonshot Collaborative

Moonshot Collaborative is a consumer research firm that provides unparalleled access to thousands of plant-based and sustainability-minded shoppers to help you understand their purchase decisions and how you can appeal to them more effectively.