Eco-Conscious Economy: Consumer Data Reveals Young Shoppers Prioritize Sustainability

Generation Z and Millennial consumers are more likely to pay a premium for products that are legitimately sustainable in some way, from materials to packaging to delivery. The third annual Consumer Sustainability Survey from Blue Yonder, a digital supply chain platform, confirms that sustainability remains a priority for all consumers. However, younger shoppers are more definitive and consistent in their choices, with 85% of Gen Z and 84% of Millennials reporting that sustainability considerations are important to them. 

“It’s especially promising that so many respondents are willing to spend more for sustainable products, given that price concerns, exacerbated by the ongoing challenge of inflation, have marked conversations around consumer behavior over the last year,” said Saskia van Gendt, Blue Yonder’s chief sustainability officer, in a statement. “Their willingness to spend more should send a clear message to brands and retailers that investing in sustainable solutions and practices is worthwhile, not only for the planet but also for maintaining consumer loyalty and trust.” 

78% of U.S.-based poll respondents said that sustainability concerns are very or somewhat important to them when choosing to buy a product or shop at a retailer. And 70% of consumers said they have shopped at a retailer promoting their products as sustainable at least once in the past six months. Almost half (47%) reported that their interest in shopping sustainably increased in the last year, and 40% said they would pay up to an additional 5%, and 25% said they would pay an additional 10% or more. 

Skepticism about sustainability claims remains high

Interestingly, consumer skepticism remains high regarding sustainability marketing and messaging. If consumers are going to pay more, they need to verify claims for themselves. 

Nearly half (48%) of respondents said they can only “sometimes” trust a brand’s sustainability claims, depending on its message, brand reputation and history. More than one-third (35%) of respondents said they do not trust brands’ claims, citing the need for their own additional research (21%) and the belief that brands tout sustainability regardless of whether it aligns with their actions (14%). 

An ESW report released in April said that US consumers are less sustainability-minded than they were just one year ago. The overall score dropped from 51 on the index to 49, and lagging behind the global mean of 55. However, US Millennials (59) and Gen Z (57) scored above the global mean, whereas Gen X (50), and Boomers (35) scored lower. 

Globally, consumer trust in sustainability claims is low, which could be adding to lowered interest in sustainability overall. According to The Blue Yonder survey, 70% reported shopping sustainably in the last year, vs. 74% in 2023. The ESW numbers reveal that, globally, more than half of the consumers surveyed (55%) said they are more aware of greenwashing than they were a year ago, and 27% said they considered a brand’s environmental transparency record when making a purchase. 

Consumer trust and truth in advertising are key to a healthy economy, which is why greenwashing is so harmful. If consumers can’t discern which companies are truly engaged in ethical environmentally-friendly commerce, they won’t support the industries making the most positive impact. To that end, Two Sides has engaged with more than 300 North American companies to combat misinformation by changing or removing misleading environmental claims used to promote electronic services over paper-based communications. Globally, the Two Sides Anti-greenwashing Campaign has persuaded more than 1,180 companies, government agencies and other organizations to remove statements that are unsubstantiated. 

Greener packaging is a priority

According to the Blue Yonder survey, 47% of consumers said they would be likely or very likely to pay more for greener shipping options such as lower carbon footprint delivery and sustainable packaging. 61% of consumers said using recycled content or recycled packaging was the most important environmental practice a retailer or brand should adopt.  

According to TSNA’s own research released in 2023, in addition to expressing an overall preference for paper-based packaging, 56% of consumers prefer that items ordered online be delivered in paper packaging, up from 52% in 2021. 50% say they are actively taking steps to increase their use of paper-based packaging, up from 41%. 47% would avoid shopping with a retailer that is not actively trying to reduce its use of non-recyclable packaging, up from 39%. 

Overall, the data underscores consistent consumer behavior toward sustainability, particularly among younger generations. Generation Z and Millennials’ willingness to pay a premium for sustainable products sends a clear message to brands and retailers about the importance of investing in sustainable solutions. Greener options and the use of recyclable materials have become increasingly pivotal, with a significant portion of consumers willing to pay more for sustainable options.  

While skepticism persists regarding sustainability claims, consumers prioritize transparency and ethical practices, highlighting the necessity for truthful advertising. Ultimately, fostering consumer trust and aligning with environmentally friendly practices not only benefits the planet but also strengthens brand loyalty, thus contributing to a healthier economy.

Cardboard Comes Out On Top

Consumer Preference and Industry Efforts Pave the Way for Corrugated Boxes

As consumers increasingly voice their environmental concerns, industries worldwide are actively seeking sustainable alternatives to reduce their carbon footprint. Not surprisingly, corrugated cardboard packaging has emerged as an environmentally sustainable choice, boasting benefits that other packaging materials simply can’t match. Reports and surveys, including a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA) recently published by the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) and the 2023 US Trend Tracker Survey commissioned by Two Sides North America, shed light on the environmental impact of cardboard packaging and illustrate why it is fast becoming the preferred choice of brands and consumers around the globe.

Published in October 2023, the 2020 Life Cycle Assessment of U.S. Average Corrugated Product found that the corrugated packaging industry has achieved substantial reductions in the environmental impacts of a typical corrugated cardboard box. 

Specifically, the LCA shows a 50% per unit reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 2006 and 2020, tackling the most urgent and predominant causes of climate change. Meaningful reductions were also achieved in ozone depletion (13%), energy usage (13%), water usage (18%), acid rain (41%), smog (44%), respiratory effects (54%), and eutrophication, which leads to algae blooms and dead zones in bodies of water (30%).

The industry achieved this progress through energy improvements, the creation of a strong recycling infrastructure, sustainably managed forests, and a commitment to continuous environmental improvement. The industry continues to shift to cleaner burning fuel, has increased its participation in a greener U.S. electric grid, and made investments in energy efficiency. 

cardboard boxes

Raw Materials

Cardboard packaging is a standout choice in terms of raw material sustainability. Using wood fiber from purpose-grown, sustainably managed forests ensures that the extraction process is both responsible and renewable. The LCA reveals that sustainable forestry practices, when paired with efficient management, contribute to the overall favorable environmental profile of cardboard packaging.

The fresh wood fiber used to manufacture cardboard, which is continually renewed in sustainably managed forests, aids in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while recycling old corrugated cardboard avoids carbon dioxide and methane emissions from landfills. This combination of fresh and recycled fibers in cardboard production maximizes fiber reuse and enables circularity. 

Manufacturing Processes

Significant advances in manufacturing technology and processes have increased efficiency and decreased energy consumption in cardboard production, leading to reduced environmental impacts. In addition, the industry’s proactive approach to water recycling and conservation, along with the increased use of renewable energy, further reduces cardboard’s environmental footprint. 

Transportation and Distribution

Cardboard’s lightweight nature contributes to lower transportation costs and emissions compared to heavier packaging materials. Lighter weights translate into lower fuel consumption during transportation, thereby decreasing the overall carbon footprint. This is particularly crucial in a globalized economy where goods are transported over long distances.

End-of-Life Considerations

Cardboard’s recyclability is a critical factor in its circular life cycle, and the corrugated industry has enabled increasingly higher recycling rates with billions of dollars in voluntary infrastructure investment over the past 30 years.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cardboard is the most recycled packaging material in the United States. The American Forest and Paper Association reports that the recycling rate for cardboard boxes was more than 93% in 2022.  

Consumer Trends and Attitudes: Insights from the 2023 US Trend Tracker Survey

In January 2023, Two Sides North America commissioned its biennial Trend Tracker Survey to better understand changing consumer preferences, perceptions and attitudes toward print, paper and paper-based packaging. The survey, conducted by international research firm Toluna,  showed a growing awareness among U.S. consumers about the environmental impacts of packaging materials and a preference for sustainable packaging. 

The survey findings reveal that consumers prefer products with paper or cardboard packaging for various reasons, including its ease of recycling and home composting. Half of consumers believe paper-based packaging is better for the environment than other types of packaging, including plastic, glass and metal. In addition to expressing an overall preference for paper-based packaging, 56% of consumers prefer that items ordered online be delivered in paper packaging, up from 52% in 2021. 50% say they are actively taking steps to increase their use of paper-based packaging, up from 41%. 47% would avoid shopping with a retailer that is not actively trying to reduce its use of non-recyclable packaging, up from 39%.

Environmental Misconceptions

Despite the expanding body of scientific evidence supporting the inherent sustainability of paper-based packaging and consumers’ efforts to make sustainable choices, many misconceptions about cardboard and its effects on the environment remain. You can help set the record straight by arming yourself with the facts. To learn more, visit www.twosidesna.org/mythsandfacts.

As online shopping continues to grow, brands should consider consumers’ packaging preferences

The coronavirus pandemic’s demand-shock, brick-and-mortar store closures and stay-at-home orders have upended retail sales. As total spending declines, online spending is projected to surge by 18% in 2020, reflecting the impact of new buyers joining the online retail space as a result of the pandemic.  With ecommerce expected to reach 14.5% of total retail sales this year – both an all-time high and the biggest ever share increase in a single year* – the findings of Two Sides’ recent U.S. Packaging Preferences Survey provide brand owners with valuable insights into consumers’ current thinking on packaging materials, online shopping and related behavior.

  • More than half of consumers (57%) prefer products ordered online to be delivered in paper/cardboard packaging, and two-thirds (66%) believe paper/cardboard packaging is better for the environment than other types of packaging.
  • 70% of consumers prefer products ordered online to be delivered in appropriate fitting packaging, i.e., not too big for the size of the product inside.
  • Consumers across the United States are willing to change their behavior to shop more sustainably. Nearly 4 in 10 (38%) are willing to spend more on a product if it is packaged using sustainable materials, and more than a third (36%) said they would consider avoiding a retailer who is not taking steps to reduce their use of non-recyclable packaging.
  • When asked to rank their preferred packaging materials (paper and cardboard, glass, metal or plastic) based on 15 environmental, practical and visual/tactile attributes, paper and cardboard packaging ranked highest on 11 of 15 attributes, including being home compostable (69%) and easier to recycle (51%).
  • Glass packaging ranked highest among consumers on three practical and tactile/visual attributes, including being reusable (36%), having a preferred look and feel (32%) and providing better protection (29%).  Nearly half of respondents (47%) ranked metal packaging highest for being strong and robust. Plastic packaging was not ranked highest for any of the 15 attributes but was ranked second highest for seven attributes.
  • The survey showed that paper/cardboard is correctly considered by consumers to be the most recycled packaging material, but only 24% think the U.S. recycling rate for paper/cardboard packaging exceeds 60%. In fact, 73% of all paper-based packaging in the United States is recycled, and 88% of cardboard is recycled, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Consumer attitudes toward plastic are clear, with 57% of survey respondents indicating they are actively taking steps to reduce their use of plastic packaging, 36% saying they would avoid retailers if they knew they were not actively trying to reduce their use of non-recyclable plastic packaging, and 44% saying the use of non-recyclable packaging should be discouraged through taxation.

“Only time will tell the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s little doubt that it is already changing many aspects of modern life, including the way we shop for everything from groceries, beauty items and health-related products to electronics, sports equipment and pet supplies,” says Two Sides Vice President of Operations Kathi Rowzie.

“Shopping online will become the new normal for many consumers as companies enhance their supply chains, get more efficient at packaging and order fulfillment, and speed up delivery. It’s also clear that growing awareness of sustainable packaging choices is becoming a driving force in consumer purchasing decisions. As brand owners rethink their packaging strategies to align with current market realities and consumer preferences, paper-based packaging stands out as a natural choice.”

The Two Sides Packaging Preferences Survey 2020 was conducted by independent research firm Toluna.  Download the full report here.                                                        

*eMarketer, US Ecommerce, 2020

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