How green is your trolley? Why shoppers have gone eco

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Portrait of a man holding a crate full of fresh produce in a farmer's market
Shoppers are demanding better eco credentials from businesses. (Getty Images)

Back when we were growing up, brands were all about convenience and affordability. Families weren't too bothered about what washing powder did to aquatic life as long as it got whites sparkling, and nobody worried about recycling so long as they had a handy plastic straw to drink their neon juice from a plastic cup.

Times have changed, however - and driven by the fear of climate change and growing awareness of the planet's finite resources, households now care - in some cases above all else - where their goods come from, and where they're going afterwards. 'Landfill' is a dirty word, and younger people are going vegan faster than their parents used to down a greasy burger. 

New research by YouGov has found that 52% of UK shoppers base buying decisions on a brand's eco-awareness, and over a fifth refuse to buy if they feel it's not up to scratch, whether that's due to excess plastic, orang-utan endangering palm oil, environmentally unfriendly chemicals or components, or even a questionable company philosophy - something much harder to hide in the days of social media.  

Woman enjoys shopping
Younger consumers in particular are much more interested in where their products come from (Getty Images)

Read more: Top five habits of eco-friendly people

The 'Focus of Change' report found that food and drink shoppers are highly eco-aware with 36% choosing not to buy if the brand fails to live up to their standards, and a third have changed their household purchases to lessen their environmental impact. 

62% of shoppers now consider how eco-friendly their food and drink is, and 65% are worried about the sustainability of their household goods.

“UK shoppers are already voting with their wallets when it comes to eco-friendly products," said Simon Carr, chief strategy officer at advertising agency Hearts & Science. 

"It’s not just that they’ll choose brands that have the best green credentials, but they’ll actively stop buying those that don’t."

Watch: Millennials could teach baby boomers a thing or two about caring for the planet

But why are we suddenly so worried about how green is our trolley? The main drivers of purchasing used to be quality and price. So are we now falling for an expensive con in believing that products promising environmental credentials will save the planet - or is it true that the only way is eco, and we should all be conscious consumers now?

"Conscious consumerism, the growing desire to buy less but better, and to buy from businesses that share the customer's ethics and values, is growing amongst all ages, but is even more pronounced in Gen Z shoppers and Millennials," explains Catherine Erdly, founder of www.resilientretailclub.com which helps businesses to grow their sales. 

The change is largely driven by younger people, she thinks, as they have grown up steeped in environmental awareness. 

Woman holding a banner of 'We Need A Change'. Young woman with poster in front of people protesting about climate changing on the street. Meeting about problem in ecology, environment, global warming, industrial influence, climate emergency.
Worries about climate change are driving the demand for more sustainable shopping. and less disposable plastic and fast fashion. (Getty Images)

"Many Gen Z shoppers in particular have had environmental concerns drummed into them from school onwards," she explains, "There was also a major shift known as the "Blue Planet 2" effect that happened in 2018, where ocean plastics become much more of a pressing concern amongst all age groups.  

"A lot of these behaviours are coming from an increased understanding of the impact of our consumption on the planet."

The real change, she adds, is that being 'eco conscious' used to be a selling point for brands. Now, it's simply expected - and "not being a sustainable brand is considered a negative by large parts of the buying population."

But while smaller businesses may bend over backwards to be sustainable, ethical and truly green- and charge higher prices to cover their raised costs as a result - are big brands just paying lip service? 

"This is certainly the charge levelled at many businesses, particularly fashion," agrees Erdly. "After all, when fast fashion ranges launch "green" collections, how green are they really?  

"Often they are focused on the materials - making items from organic cotton or recycled plastics, but they don't address other issues such as water consumption, carbon footprints or how the people in the supply chain are paid and treated."

Dhaka, Bangladesh- November 24, 2018: Plastic bottles are seen in a recycle factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on November 24, 2018.
Excess plastic is a turn-off for shoppers, who want brands to clean up their act. (Getty Images)

Read more: Sustainable beauty: 10 eco-friendly products doing their bit for the planet

So what should customers be looking for to check a brand is really putting its money where its (river) mouth is?

"Brands should be looking to minimise or eliminate waste throughout their supply chain including a focus on packaging" says Erdly, "also, removing plastic where possible, reducing the distance that items have to travel - e.g. if you air freight a "sustainable garment" from China, how eco friendly is that?"

She also suggests there should be transparency around the supply chain and a commitment to paying workers fairly.

And for brands that aren't up to scratch, can customers exert enough pressure to create change, or is it more feasible that laws will need to be passed to change things for the better long term?

"I think consumer behaviour is exerting a lot of pressure," she says, "but there is definitely room for more legislation and oversight, especially around the claims that businesses make about their eco credentials."

For small business owners, sustainable manufacturing and shipping is increasingly important. 

"There is an extremely high influx of consumers more concerned than ever before about the origin of their garments," says Lora Gene, owner of sustainable fashion label Loragene.com

"I think there are multiple reasons behind this - from people being more aware of the impact companies have on the environment, to the link with Chinese manufacturing - Covid has massively influenced that - to the increasing attention on how much 'stuff' we actually need," Gene adds.

"There is a newly emerging awareness about what people buy and it's very much related to the ethics of businesses too."

T-shirt made of 100% and hundred percent organic materials. Customer with responsible and nature and eco friendly values.
Increasingly, customers look for fashion that's better made, and does less harm to the planet and the workers who make it. (Getty Images)

It's a case of creating grass-roots change, rather than waiting for big business and legislation to wake up, adds Afsaneh Parvizi-Wayne, a Forbes global sustainable leader who runs eco period-care brand, Freda, "Consumers can do very little to change global policies but they have realised their shopping habits will force big conglomerates to go green," she explains.

"Take period care - for over 60 years, nothing had changed. Now, with the influence of disruptor brands like Freda, the likes of P&G are introducing organic tampons, period pants and menstrual cups. 

"This is very empowering for both the consumer and startups like mine to see the change happening." 

It's easy being green - apparently. Even if some big brands still have a way to go. 

Watch: How to be fashionable and look after the environment

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