Buying something because of the impact it has on the planet rather than because it’s the cheapest is really only affordable if you’ve got a bit of disposable income.
Sustainable products cost more to grow, manufacture, and ship than nonsustainable ones, but it’s a price that consumers are often happy to pay to feel like they’re doing something for the planet — even when sometimes they’re not, although that’s another story.
Given the cost of living crisis has meant that we’ve all got less disposable income (what a term), it follows that economic crisis has a knock-on effect on the environment.
That’s exactly what recent research from British data analytics company Kantar has found. For the first time in four years, the number of people who they classify as ‘eco-active’ has fallen.
Cost of Living Sustainably
Their survey of nearly 100,000 shoppers in 24 different countries found that the people most engaged in sustainability issues declined by 4% compared to last year. ‘Eco-dismissives’, those who make little or no effort to shop sustainably, rose as a category by 7%, making up 44% of total consumers.
“The ‘cost of living’ crisis is having an environmental impact,” they write. “Sustainability is becoming a luxury of wealthy consumers”.
Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and India, saw the biggest drops in eco-actives, between 8 and 5%, although France and Colombia saw increases in this category of 1 and 0.3% respectively. Australia was not included in the survey.
Natalie Babbage, Global Director for Kantar’s Worldpanel LinkQ Solution, said that it’s unsurprising that sustainability issues have dropped off of many people’s radar.
“Amidst a difficult world climate – from conflict and political instability, to spiralling costs and inflation, environmental issues have dropped down the priority list for many people in their day-to-day worries,” she said.
Babbage also noted that the post-pandemic shift was contributing to the move away from sustainable practices as people simply have less time to consider the environment now that work and socialising are returning.
“This means a return to seeking convenience over plastic-free items: we see people buying fewer refills, avoiding plastic less and buying plastic drink bottles more, which may all be symptoms of this ‘back to normal’, time-poor lifestyle we experienced pre-COVID,” she said.
According to Kantar, eco-actives are those who will avoid the purchase of a product if it doesn’t appear to be sustainable. Then you have ‘eco-considerers’, who will try and shop sustainably but will make unsustainable purchases if they feel they need to. Both these categories combined make up the majority of consumers still, at 56%, but it’s a declining category that Kantar suggests is a missed opportunity for producers.
If manufacturers can produce products that are both sustainable and cheap, a big ask, then we’d likely see a swing back towards more sustainable shopping practices, Kantar state. It’s a ‘value-action’ alignment that they suggest is a market worth $991 billion globally for companies who can bridge it.
If Only We Could Eat Plastic
Failing that, we need solutions to fix the problem of plastic waste often left over by unsustainable shopping practices. Even on our current trajectory, global plastic use is set to double by 2040, with only 13% of that getting recycled.
To that end, Aussie tech-start up Samsara Eco has developed an innovative new way of recycling plastic. Despite the fact we’ve got tonnes of plastic lying around in landfills, we’re still creating 368 million tonnes of new stuff because we struggle to turn the rest into useful product.
What they’ve managed to create is enzyme-based technology that breaks plastic down into its constituent parts before remolding it into useful product. Doing this means plastic waste could actually have value and push companies to gather up what they’ve put out into the world.
Speaking to The Latch, Vanessa Vongsouthi, Protein Engineering Lead & Research Founder at Samsara Eco said that the ability to re-use plastic is more dire than ever.
“The rising cost of living means that many people will choose between essentials and ‘sustainable products’ that come at a premium price, which is a no-brainer,” she said. “This is not the fault of consumers and points to a larger issue”.
Their methods, which have caught the eye of investors to the tune of $6 million, will, they say, make plastic “infinitely recyclable” and, at a mass scale, do away with the need to turn more fossil fules into plastic.
“Creating value for plastic waste is part of the solution to the waste crisis,” she said, noting that elimination, reduction, repurposing, policy and regulation surrounding virgin plastic production are also essential.
While people may be struggling currently to limit their impact on the environment, Vongsouthi argues that corporations must be incentivised to do their part. Making plastic waste valuable would be a key part of that.
Samsara Eco plans to open its first full-scale recycling plant next year.