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What Today’s Sustainable Shoppers Are Looking For

Searches for "biodegradable" are up.

Jhánneu Roberts took her first steps toward adopting a sustainable lifestyle by embracing a minimalist one. 

About three years ago, Roberts, 27, decided to become “intentional” with each object that entered her home. “You start to think about, ‘well, where did this product come from? Who made it? What’s the packaging?’” she said. 

Gradually, her minimalist intentions evolved into sustainable habits. Now, Austin, Texas-based Roberts works as a full-time content creator and influencer, with sustainability at the heart of her work. 

“I was so fascinated by how we are literally just digging holes in the ground to throw trash in,” Roberts said. “I was like, oh my goodness, this is crazy. It’s just so wasteful. If there are ways for you to prevent being wasteful, why would you not do it?”

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Roberts is one of an increasing number of consumers today who are thinking about sustainability in their lifestyles and purchasing decisions — and putting their money where their mind is.

According to NielsenIQ, 78 percent of consumers say a sustainable lifestyle is important to them; 30 percent are more likely to buy products with sustainable credentials, and 53 percent believe companies should reduce the amount of plastic in packaging to be sustainable. 

Attitudes around sustainability are shifting to become more holistic, according to Sherry Frey, NielsenIQ’s Total Wellness Leader. For today’s sustainability-minded consumers, it’s not just about plastic packaging and carbon footprint, it’s also about fair pay for workers, ethical sourcing practices and cruelty-free ingredients. 

“Sustainability almost isn’t even the right word anymore,” Frey said. “The word itself or the semantics around it are kind of around minimizing your impact and we’re really seeing the industry evolving. From a consumer-interest standpoint, it’s almost more toward regeneration.

“Regeneration becomes a little more about, how is the world better because my company was here and my business was here,” Frey continued. “That’s resonating even more.” 

People today are searching for terms like “biodegradable,” up 222 percent from last year, or “eco friendly” skin care, up 54 percent, according to Spate. “Plastic free” has also seen search upticks, according to NielsenIQ. But, “sustainable,” “recycling,” “reusable” and “climate change” aren’t being searched as much compared to prior years, indicating they are not as top of mind for consumers as they were last year, according to Spate.

In the U.S., sustainability-minded shoppers overindex in the Northeast in the New York and New England regions, as well as on the West Coast, with California and the Pacific Northwest, said Ryu Yokoi, head of e-commerce and digital at Unilever and “sustainability champion” for its beauty and personal care division.

“You have pockets of passion throughout the country,” Yokoi said. “There’s a reason we have Whole Foods across the country.”

Yokoi sustainability trends often begin in food and trickle into other areas, a phenomenon underscored by the evolution of natural trade show Expo West, which has gone from being food-focused to including a broader variety of clean and sustainable businesses.

Yokoi and the Unilever team use data from Kantar to examine consumer sustainability habits. “Just over half the U.S. population … today is telling Kantar that they are considering sustainability when making a purchase decision. That’s up versus the prior year,” Yokoi said. 

Many consumer demographics, including Boomers, desire recyclability across purchasing segments, Yokoi said. Millennial shoppers tend to also consider ingredients, purchasing products that have “clean” ingredients. And Gen Z, Yokoi said, is “much stricter.”

“We start to see folks who are starting to consider that for something to truly be sustainable, that it should also be ethical,” Yokoi said.

Roberts, who occasionally buys ready-to-eat packaged bread or potato chips, said she looks for brands that are mindful of packaging and inclusivity, and if she has to buy something in plastic, she’ll try to buy a large size.

“A lot of times when you get vinegar it comes in a huge plastic bottles. I can use that for so many different things,” like pickling vegetables and DIY cleaner,” she said. “Instead of buying five different items, I just bought one,” she said. “So even though it is plastic, I’m still reducing my waste because I am using one product versus five.” 

With beauty products, she looks for ones that are packaged in glass or are refillable. For her hair, she uses shampoo and conditioner bars. “It definitely takes more work,” she said of the shampoos, and for the conditioner, she segments her hair and conditions piece by piece. 

For makeup, her favorites include Elate Cosmetics, Kjaer Weis and Salt New York. Roberts said she still has a hard time finding sunscreen that works on her skin tone, doesn’t leave a white cast and isn’t packaged in plastic. Currently, she’s using a product from Cocokind, which is packaged in sugarcane packaging. “It’s still not perfect,” she said. 

In addition to checking on a company’s sustainability efforts, Roberts will also investigate who is making the products, their ingredients, if workers are paid fairly and if they are casting diverse models when making purchasing decisions.

“If we want everyone to be sustainable, everyone needs to be represented,” she said. “When I was younger, there were the Greenpeace people … and the guy was like, ‘oh, don’t you want to save the polar bears?’ I’m from the South Side of Chicago so my response to him was like, ‘I mean, there’s people down the street that don’t have food to eat.’” 

Sometimes there is a “disconnect,” she said. “It’s really important to create products that are accessible.” She gave Dial, the soap brand of which she is a partner, as an example. The brand recently launched concentrated refills that can be recycled via Terracycle for less than $5. 

Outside of beauty, Roberts has swapped Ziploc bags for Stasher bags, and has a compost bin she keeps in her freezer to stave off mold and smells. 

“You realize when you’re putting things in a compost bin how much food waste you’re actually producing,” Roberts said. “Your average person thinks,  ‘when you put food in the trash or landfill it disintegrates,’ but it doesn’t because it requires a certain level of oxygen and all these things in order to actually biodegrade.” 

For clothing, she’ll shop secondhand, including from The RealReal, but generally isn’t a big clothes buyer. “Clothing that comes in the individual plastic bags drives me crazy,” she said.

“Even the products that are Clean at Sephora or whatever, still most of them come in plastic,” Roberts said, noting that she prefers brands that think about “the end of life of the product.” 

She advises her mostly Millennial female followers: “Stop buying stuff you don’t need.”

“What are the things you can say no to, even if it’s going to Sephora and they’re like, ‘do you want a free sample?’ It’s like, no, I don’t want the single-use plastic things that are going to end up in the trash,” she said.


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