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Consumers want to buy sustainably—they just don’t know how

A new study finds that while 95% of people in the U.S. think sustainability is a good goal, most of them don’t know what to look for to determine if something is, in fact, sustainable.

Consumers want to buy sustainably—they just don’t know how
[Source Image: Resavskyi/iStock]

There’s something different about H&M’s newly released 2019 fall and winter collections: They’re sustainable. Made from recycled textiles, metals, and discarded cotton fibers, the fast-fashion brand’s new line is trying to step away from an industry cluttered with products made from crude oil, like nylon.

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H&M is one of several brands working with Project Effective, which promotes the use of sustainable materials in the textile industry and was formed last year by companies Aquafil, a carpet manufacturer supplier, and Genomatica, which licenses bioengineering processes for creating natural alternatives to synthetic products.

According to a new survey by Genomatica, consumers want to start buying these more sustainable products—they just don’t know how. Seventy-four percent of consumers in the survey who take the time to read product ingredients say they don’t understand what those ingredients are. Without this understanding, they can’t make environmentally sound choices, in spite of their best intentions.

This ignorance is prevalent. Though 95% of the 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed by Genomatica think sustainability is a worthwhile aim, many of them have no idea how harmful most everyday products can be. Things like disposable water bottles, baby sunscreen, and facial moisturizer all contain crude oil, a nonrenewable resource whose harmful effects on the planet are manifold, causing dangerous emissions, pollution, and multiple oil spills each year.

Resavskyi/iStock

“Our hunch was that people don’t know where their stuff comes from, and that if they did they would want to see change,” says Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling. “We had already recently hosted a breakfast conversation with a dozen notable consumer brands to better understand their concerns about going sustainable and help them chart a route forward. It was time for us to test our theory with consumers directly.”

What Genomatica found was about on par with Schilling’s hunch—for example, 44% of respondents didn’t think disposable water bottles were made of crude oil-based ingredients (they are). Forty-two percent didn’t realize crude oil had found its way into their facial moisturizer, and 55% had no idea it lurked in baby sunscreen. Numerous products are often made from the nonrenewable material, including nail polish, house paint, toothbrushes, and shower curtains. Most people know crude oil as a key ingredient in gasoline—but 11% of millennials surveyed didn’t even realize gas was made from crude oil ingredients.

Millennials, at least, seem to care about sustainability. While 78% of those surveyed attempt to make sustainable lifestyle choices, only 69% of Gen Z members are following suit. Boomers follow closely behind millennials, with 76% of those surveyed saying they make sustainable consumer decisions. Millennials are also most likely to be informed consumers, with 34% of them understanding the ingredients they read on product labels, as opposed to just 23% of boomers and Gen X and 20% of Gen Z.

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The fact that Gen Z wasn’t totally on board with sustainability was “somewhat surprising at first blush” to Schilling. “It’s worth considering that younger people face different pressures inherent to their life stage. Things like moving out of their parents’ house, building a career, and paying off student debt often take top priority,” he says. “That said, I was impressed that Gen Z was the most likely to boycott a brand for being unsustainable.”

Overall, however, consumers tend not to put their money where their mouths are. Just about one fourth of those surveyed said they’d pay more for their favorite brand’s products if the brand starting producing more sustainably. At least this lack of willingness to spend money goes both ways—46% of respondents said they’ve boycotted a brand because of their environmentally unsound practices.

“We plan to use this information to continue educating chemical companies and brands alike that consumers are excited about sustainable products,” says Schilling. “The demand is real and here today.” Perhaps more people will be wearing H&M this year at your office holiday party.

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About the author

Jessica Klein is a freelance journalist whose stories about everything from cryptocurrency to Renaissance Faire kink have appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, BBC, Vice, and The Outline. She is the coauthor of Abetting Batterers: What Police, Prosecutors, and Courts Aren’t Doing to Protect America’s Women, which chronicles the criminal justice response to intimate partner violence in the U.S.

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