Part of the human condition is the inconsistency between what we say we want to do and what we actually do.  It both makes us who we are, and frustrates parents, partners, policy makers, teachers, coaches, and marketers. This is especially true in matters concerning sustainability. We want a healthy planet, but there are friction points and inconveniences that hold many of us back when we attempt shopping sustainably. These friction points are critical for CPG stakeholders to understand as more attention and investment is put towards ensuring products and packaging are more sustainable.   

In this two-part series, we start by illustrating the challenge of shopping sustainably and why so many sustainable packaging solutions have failed in the past. In the second part, we share the implications for brands and businesses. 

Habit at the Subconscious Level

Internal decisions—like shopping sustainably—are often happening at the conscious level. Most shopping, especially in habituated categories, is happening at the subconscious level. To stay included in the consideration set, sustainable options or redesigns need to evoke that the product should be included in a category or subcategory else they fail to be seen, understood, and wanted. Too often, when packaging undergoes major structural changes, the product is overlooked—even if the words on-pack share the news—because it isn’t even considered.

Too Much Complexity

We ran a poll on LinkedIn asking which type of packaging is the most sustainable: biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, or reusable, and the answers were distributed across the options. When there is so much nuance, variance and differing interpretations from companies and experts, the average person is left completely overwhelmed with how to best live sustainably. What do humans do when overwhelmed? We revert to doing the things we have always done. Additional factors like higher cost and questions about durability or usability with sustainable materials further the challenge. Shoppers are always doing rapid value calculations and the less the benefit or impact of a sustainable choice is understood, the more inconvenience they anticipate. The higher cost, the more difficult the challenge is to be seen as “worth it”. 

shopping sustainably

Life is Hectic

With the busyness of life, making conscious choices to build new habits in the name of environmental responsibility is easy to deprioritize. When these new habits often come with expectations of inconvenience, sustainability feels even more like a barrier than a driver. Ultimately, sustainable packaging relies on the potential being actualized. A compostable container needs to be composted and a reusable bottle needs to be reused.  In a disposable world, that is a big ask.

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