Retail Management

Consumer Expectations for Sustainability Are Accelerating Despite Inflation

By | 10 min read | Published

84% of consumers have purchased a sustainable product in the past 6 months. Learn more about consumers’ buying behavior around sustainable products so you can design an effective strategy to attract new customers.

In 2022, 95% of surveyed consumers consider the sustainability of a product to be important. And more consumers are putting their money where their mouth is: 84% of these consumers have purchased a sustainable product in the past six months, up from 67% in 2021.

This is despite rampant inflation and the host of other factors impacting consumer sentiment. Americans want to buy products that are safe and healthy not only for themselves, but also for our planet and society.

But what does this mean for retailers trying to update product offerings and compete under this growing expectation of sustainable products? In our 2022 Consumer Sustainability Expectations survey[*], we asked 759 consumers in the U.S. about their understanding of and expectations for sustainable products. In this report, we’ll compare these results with what we found with the same survey[**] we ran in 2021.

If you are a small-business retailer working to meet the increasing consumer demand for sustainability, you can use this report to inform your product development and materials procurement strategy.

Key highlights
Consumer awareness and understanding of sustainable products have increased.
  • 88% of consumers check the sustainability of a product before purchase at least sometimes; one in five always check.
  • Uncertainty about whether a purchased product was sustainable or not fell by more than half—from 24% to 10%.
Willingness to pay more for sustainability has slightly increased by an average of 8%, even given the inflation rate experienced this year.
  • Consumers who strongly agree that the purchase price of sustainable products is reasonable has nearly doubled—from 16% to 32% year-over-year (YOY).
  • 84% of consumers have purchased a sustainable product in the past six months, up from 67% in 2021.
Despite the willingness to pay more, cost still remains the top barrier today.
  • The level of mistrust or misunderstanding of sustainability as the reason for not buying sustainable products is down significantly, standing at just 3% today compared to 14% in 2021.

What do we mean by a ‘sustainable product’?

In our survey, we provide the following definition for sustainability: Sustainability encourages businesses to frame decisions in terms of environmental, social, and human impact for long-term rather than short-term gains. Examples of sustainable actions are paying fair wages, supporting social/charity projects, reducing the use of plastic and CO2, and designing environmentally-friendly products.

Nearly every consumer (99.6%) is familiar with the concept of sustainability, 88% check for sustainability at least sometimes before buying a product, and 84% have purchased a sustainable product in the past six months. Each of these categories saw an increase over last year’s findings.

Are consumers actually buying sustainable products, and not just telling us that they value sustainability?

Overall, yes. We see an increase in every aspect of consumer expectations for sustainability from last year, from awareness to buying behavior to willingness to pay more. 88% of consumers now check the sustainability of a product before purchase at least some of the time—one in five always check. This is quite a change in sentiment from the 47% who said last year that they were minimally or not at all influenced to buy a product because of its sustainability.

When we compare how many consumers have bought a sustainable product in the past six months from 2022 versus 2021, we see an increase of 17%.

Have you bought a sustainable product in the past 6 months? 2022 & 2021 comparison chart

When we break this information down even further and compare the results across age groups, the generational differences are rather stark: 90% of Gen Z have bought a sustainable product in the past six months compared to 85% of Millennials, 84% of Gen X, and 78% of Baby Boomers.

90% of Gen Z have bought a sustainable product in the past six months compared to 85% of Millennials, 84% of Gen X, and 78% of Baby Boomers.

Because Gen Z has been raised in a time where climate change discussions have expanded from simple warnings from the science community to discussions and efforts expanding across mainstream media and marketing, sustainability is a vital initiative to them. As they continue to increase their incomes and purchasing power (becoming the more powerful consumer group), the more sustainability will be a requirement for retailers to be competitive.

Are consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products?

Yes, but only slightly. We see a big jump in how many consumers strongly agree that sustainable products are priced reasonably: 32% in 2022, up from just 16% in October 2021. And even with everything in life costing more (thanks, inflation), the willingness of consumers to pay more for sustainable goods has increased slightly, by an average of 8% from 2021.

2022 & 2021 comparison chart showing consumers' degree of agreement with the reasonable pricing for sustainable products

Overall, consumers are willing to accept that making products sustainably increases the costs. When we look at the results broken down by age group, Gen Z is more tolerant to increased prices, with only 3% reporting they disagree that the price of sustainable goods is reasonable compared to 7% of Millennials, 12% of Gen X, and 9% of Baby Boomers.

How do consumers know when they’re buying a sustainable product?

They mainly rely on information from you, the retailer. The majority of consumers check the product’s packaging (71%) for information on its sustainability and 60% check the company’s website. Only 4% of consumers report not looking for sustainability information, compared to 25% not checking for it in 2021.

This increased interest in sustainable practices and materials has boosted awareness by 14% since October 2021—more consumers can clearly recognize and select sustainable products now.

But, not everyone is checking, especially older Americans. 19% of Baby Boomers never or rarely check if a product is sustainable or not prior to purchase, versus just 1% of Gen Z never checking.

This translates to awareness of a product’s sustainability being the lowest amongst Baby Boomers with 22% reporting uncertainty about whether the products they buy are sustainable or not, compared to just 7% of Gen Z and 9% for each Millennials and Gen X.

This uncertainty about the sustainability of a product seems to be limited to the individual product bought, not about the overall understanding of what sustainability means.

What part of a product are consumers wanting to be sustainable?

Materials and packaging still top the list. While every category saw an increase, both of these aspects of a product’s sustainability not only topped the list for importance but both saw an increase of at least 25% since 2021.

aspects of sustainability consumers look for, 2022 vs. 2021 comparison chart

Nearly three out of four consumers (71%) are checking that a product’s materials are sustainable before making the purchase. Materials can include wood, metals, and glass (think non-edible parts) that are ethically-sourced, renewable, and/or recycled. 68% of consumers want the product’s packaging to be sustainable, which we’re seeing as a move away from plastics and toward recyclable packaging materials such as plants. 58% of consumers want the ingredients of edible items to be sustainable. (For example, consumers might want responsibly-sourced and replenished fish or seafood.)

Another increase year over year is the concern for how workers are treated. This includes fair wages and ethical treatment, both of which nearly doubled from last year, at 22% and 20% respectively. It’s not as easy for consumers to find this type of information on the items they’re looking to buy, so we recommend sharing this information clearly on a product’s packaging and/or your website if you’re one of the few companies prioritizing this. The humanity factors will only continue to grow in importance for consumers.

What products are consumers wanting to be sustainable the most?

All of them. We see increases in the importance of sustainability across all product types from last year, but the order of which products rank stayed nearly the same. In fact, the percentage of consumers who don’t consider sustainability as an important factor for any product type was cut by more than half, from 14% in 2021 to just 6% in 2022.

types of products sustainability is an important factor for, 2022 vs. 2021 comparison chart

Consumers still value sustainability in the types of products that are readily consumable and relatively quickly discarded, such as food, clothing, and household products. These top three product categories were also the three that saw the biggest increase of consumers reporting that sustainability is important for:

  • Food and drink jumped from 41% to 60%
  • Clothing went from 39% to 55
  • Electronics saw an increase from 28% to 38%

Just as we saw in our 2021 report, the non-consumables categories, such as home improvements (e.g., windows or appliances) or a new home, still ranked near the bottom (15% and 8% respectively).

This steady increase year over year means we can predict this trend to continue. So if your business is in one of these top categories, your sustainability strategy should have a more aggressive timeline and marketing strategy than if you’re in the homebuilding sector.

What you can do

For all your products, regardless of where you’re at in your sustainability efforts, be transparent and vocal about your products’ origins, materials, the workers’ conditions, and any transportation used. Unfortunately, as with most other terms, such as “renewable” and “organic,” there’s no ruling definition or set of standards for what makes a product sustainable.

For example, are the raw materials used in your product replaced after harvesting? Are the workers paid fair wages and treated ethically? Can your customer recycle/reuse the product? Your customers want to know, so share this info on the product’s packaging and on your website.

Shifting toward more sustainably made and transported products will only continue to grow in importance for American consumers. But the rate at which you make these changes can be affected by who your target demographic is. If your customer base is younger, especially in Gen Z, you should be prioritizing these changes right now. Whereas if your base is older you can likely make smaller changes now and plan out larger ones over the next few years. But, this could mean you lose out on market share of the younger generation in the meantime.

We predict the trend of an increasing number of consumers wanting to buy sustainable products and willing to pay a bit more for them will continue. Use this consumer market research to inform your short and long-term sustainability strategies. A happy earth makes happy people!

Survey demographics

Just as we recommend transparency in your business practices, we always strive to be as transparent as possible, too. In that spirit, here’s the demographic information we gathered on our survey respondents. This way you can know more about the consumers researched to come up with this market report for you.

respondents by gender chart
respondents by employment status chart
respondents by age group chart
respondents by location type chart
respondents by household income chart
respondents by education level chart


[*] Capterra conducted the Consumer Sustainability Expectations Survey in August 2022 among 759 U.S. consumers to learn about their expectations and preferences for sustainably made and transported goods. Respondents were screened that they had made a purchase in the past 12 months. The goal of this survey is to understand consumers’ expectations and shopping behavior for products being made and shipped sustainably.

[**] Capterra conducted the Consumer Preferences for Sustainable Products survey in October 2021 of 1,234 U.S. consumers who are shopping/planning to shop for products for the 2021 holiday season. The goal of this survey is to understand consumers’ expectations and desires for products being made and shipped sustainably.

Note: Numbers in this report have been rounded to the nearest full number, except where explicitly written out to the tenth decimal place.

Looking for Retail Management Systems software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Retail Management Systems software solutions.

About the Author

Olivia Montgomery, PMP

Olivia Montgomery, PMP

Olivia Montgomery is an associate principal analyst at Capterra, covering IT project management and supply chains, with a focus on the benefits of a closely-aligned IT team with operations to drive digital transformation. Olivia pulls from her experience as an IT PMO leader and her humanities studies to deliver data-driven insights for small-business leaders. Her work has been published in Forbes, CIO Dive, The Digital Project Manager, and TechRepublic. When not researching tech trends, you can find her jumping horses or re-watching Jurassic Park.

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