Key Takeaways on Sustainability in Retail and E-commerce [Morning Consult report]

Sustainability has been talked about a lot for some time. But the purpose is for companies to actually start moving in that direction. Retail and e-commerce brands must prioritize sustainability to meet the demands of consumers concerned about climate change. But consumer concerns about sustainability are vague, and brands have an opportunity to define what sustainable practices mean to them. 

Among other things, that’s what we’ll be talking about today, so we invite you to lean into our report or read the full version here.

Let’s get started!

Quick Overview

The biggest concern among consumers is manufacturing’s impact on climate change. They are worried about climate change and sustainability, but they cannot identify specific actions they can take to improve sustainability. 

The manufacturing of products is the top retail-centric sustainability concern – consumer behavior and online shopping rank lower.

Resale and sustainability go hand in hand. As more brands enter the resale market, the value brands can offer will continue to attract more shoppers. Secondhand shoppers are significantly more likely to shop there again in the future, so retailers entering this market should have repeat customers. 

Furthermore, shoppers don’t believe their behavior harms the environment. One out of four shoppers is aware that their own shopping habits contribute to climate change. Shoppers who see themselves as having a major impact are much more likely to buy from brands that share their environmental values. 

There is also a tendency for people to engage in behaviors that benefit the environment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sustainability is their primary concern.

Consumer Attitudes

Shoppers are more concerned about the environmental impact of industry manufacturing practices than individual consumer decisions, with online shopping being the least concerning. 

Politically liberal, wealthier, and highly educated shoppers tend to be most concerned about manufacturing’s impact, while those who are not affected are mostly:

  • men, 
  • Republicans 
  • and rural residents.

Gen Z adults have a complicated relationship with fast fashion, being less concerned about its impact than older generations but more concerned about online shopping.

Source: Morning Consult report

Many consumers lack a clear understanding of what sustainable shopping entails, and their responses to questions about sustainability are often vague. Few are specific about manufacturing practices or waste pollution. 

As a result, there is an opportunity for retailers and brands to help define the term and better articulate the specific environmental impacts that both a brand and its customers can make.

Source: Morning Consult report

Consumer Behaviors

According to a survey, 42% of U.S. adults are willing to share the additional costs of sustainable practices with the brands they shop from. 

However, the attitudes of environmentally conscious shoppers towards sharing costs with companies differ from that of the average U.S. adult. 

Ethical, Experience, and Reputation shoppers are more willing to share the costs with companies and are less likely to have no opinion on the matter, while Apolitical and Disengaged shoppers do not have strong opinions either way. 

Regardless of their opinions, everyone agrees that consumers shouldn’t bear more of the cost than companies do.

Source: Morning Consult report

Moreover, experience shoppers, who are mostly women, are the most likely to think their behaviors have a major impact on climate change. But, while sustainability is important for these shoppers, it may not be a sufficient motivator for them to try something new if it requires trade-offs with affordability, quality, or convenience. 

Source: Morning Consult report

Brand Actions

Less than half of U.S. adults have heard about major sustainability initiatives in the retail industry, and those who are aware tend to be younger and more interested in living a sustainable lifestyle. 

What’s interesting, high-profile articles about the challenges of dealing with returned merchandise have received more attention than new resale and recycling programs, which are often small and expensive to administer. 

Source: Morning Consult report

Brands should make efforts to promote their sustainability programs and initiatives to increase awareness among consumers. That’s why they are increasingly launching their own resale operations to earn sustainability points and tap into the growing popularity of secondhand shopping. 

While sustainability is the third-ranked motivation for participating in the resale economy, it is an effective way to shop sustainably by keeping merchandise out of landfills and offsetting demand for brand-new products. 

As retailers continue to invest in these programs, the long-term success of the resale economy depends on continued growth from both buyers and sellers.

Source: Morning Consult report

Brands are also beginning to use the Theory of Planned Behavior. It’s a psychological theory that links beliefs to behavior and is used to understand consumer behavior, especially in sustainable attitudes. 

The theory explains that people are more likely to engage in a behavior if they intend to do so, and three factors predict their intentions: 

  • subjective norms, 
  • perceived behavioral control, 
  • and attitudes. 

Let’s look at examples:

👉 The more social pressure people feel to engage in a behavior, the higher the subjective norms. 

👉 The easier they think it would be to engage in the behavior, the higher their perceived behavioral control. 

👉 The more favorable evaluation they have of the behavior, the more positive their attitudes are toward it. Past behavior is also considered an additional predictor.

Source: Morning Consult report


Retail and e-commerce brands are under pressure to become more sustainable, and consumers are willing to pay more for those with sustainable practices. 

Sustainability is not always consumers’ primary concern when engaging in environmentally friendly behaviors. However, there are groups of people for whom sustainability matters, so brands should take this into account in their development plans.

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