Female business owner helping customer in their sustainable shop

Sustainable Products May Be Key to Your Success

5 min read • Jun 06, 2020 • Katherine O'Malley

Sustainable products and sustainability. Are these buzzwords or words with meaning that are here to stay? Do consumer dollars follow their thoughts on the importance of sustainability? How should small businesses position themselves to be sustainable? 

According to IBM’s “Meet the 2020 Consumers Driving Change” report, “‘Sustainability’ has become a catch-all term that can encompass anything from environmental conservation to factory conditions to employee relations, and much in between.”

If the concept of sustainability is that vague, why should businesses care? 

Sustainability Trends

The data shows consumers spend money to show they care. Harvard Business Review reports that sales of products that “had a sustainability claim on-pack” increased from 14.3% of the market share in 2013 to 16.6% in 2018, which translated to almost an additional $114 billion in 2018 sales. That’s a lot of “I care” votes from consumer dollars.

IBM’s research study showed that 40% of consumers in early 2020 were “purpose-driven” or willing to pay for products aligned with their values and lifestyles, including sustainability. These findings support the prediction that 2020 retail trends would include an increase in consumers buying sustainable and ethical goods.

Temporary Pause for the Pandemic

In March 2020, the US economy shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. No surprise that customers modified their purchasing behaviors as a result.

Consumers shifted their focus to safety rather than sustainability. For example, a Nielsen BASES survey found that consumer sentiment for home care products focused more on “killing germs, providing immunity, and overall health promotion” than on “claims around naturalness, sustainability, quality, and brand.”

Single-use plastic, perceived as safer than reusable items such as cloth grocery bags during the pandemic, had a resurgence. Cities revoked plastic bag bans to discourage reusable bag use. Major food chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ banned the use of reusable coffee mugs.

Single-use plastic usage has also expanded due to:

  • Increase in carry-out dining containers
  • Hoarding of single-use water bottles
  • Use of PPE equipment such as face shields

At the same time, a decrease in plastics recycling occurred due to safety concerns.

So the pandemic threw a monkey wrench in the customer focus on sustainability.

Predictions for Sustainable Products

Long-term consumer expectations for sustainability will return as the economy recovers. And customers will expect businesses to continue changes they made during the pandemic that fall under the sustainability umbrella.

The increase in plastic usage may linger as long as customers focus on the “hygiene advantages of plastic packaging.” Plastic usage may decrease as virus fears diminish—when a vaccine exists or consumers believe the research that the virus lives on plastic for up to 3 days, or a supplier invents packaging material that repels the virus.

Consumers may delay paying a premium for sustainable products until the economy recovers. Food Business News predicts customers will continue to look for low-cost sustainable options such as imperfect food while shying away from high-cost sustainable options such as organic brands.

GreenBiz predicts that some consumer behavior shifts that occurred during the pandemic will persist, including a focus on locally sourcing foods, decreasing food waste, and rewarding companies that treated employees well during the pandemic.

An MIT Sloan study showed that customers had been willing to pay for supply chain visibility. And many companies were forced to shift their supply chain during the pandemic due to global disruptions. This supply chain focus and transparency can be part of an ongoing sustainability platform for businesses, including:

  • Shifting from a global supply chain to a domestic supply chain
  • Building “just-in-case” supply chain options where you know how to adapt your supply chain if a supplier or sub-supplier faces a disruption
  • Incorporating the concept of a circular economy, including reusing materials rather than trashing them

Steps Small Businesses Can Take

Your customers will expect sustainable products and business practices in the future. Here are steps you can take now:

  • Watch for regulation and other large-scale changes. Outside Online suggests sustainable changes will come from “large-scale structural change.”
  • Become a certified B-corp to show your commitment to the triple bottom line of profit, people, and the planet.
  • Consider adopting a B-corp mentality, even if certification may be out of reach.
  • Switch from paper to digital. This move is a double-bonus: you can reduce your environmental impact and increase employee/customer safety by eliminating transaction touchpoints.
  • Offer remote work options to reduce the environmental impact of employee commutes.

If you need funding to implement these sustainability options, consider a hassle-free small business loan to move your business forward.


Katherine O'Malley

Katherine O'Malley is a contributor to the Lendio blog. A technology geek at heart, she splits her time between traveling, freelance writing, database administration work, and implementing SEO on her travel blog. In her free time, she loves to research the challenges small-to-midsize tourist suppliers face and find ways that technology can help them out.