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NEW YORK—Taking it seriously. That’s what’s seemed to be happening to the subject of sustainability in this year like no other, 2020. From individuals and families to companies and businesses large and small, a new awareness of climate change, economic challenges, social causes, human vulnerability and a growing priority toward health and wellness are all factors. Many felt this way before, but the pandemic and a one-of-a-kind year has created more concern among customers about corporate social responsibility. In other words, they are concerned about companies’ values and what they stand for and support.

Sustainability is a complex subject that touches many aspects of daily living. One of the most-often quoted definitions of sustainability comes from the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But this is manifesting in new ways. In a study released this spring in association with the the National Retail Federation (NRF) and the IBM Institute for Business Value, the authors wrote, “Sustainability has reached a tipping point. As consumers increasingly embrace social causes, they seek products and brands that align with their values. Nearly six in 10 consumers surveyed are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. Nearly eight in 10 respondents indicate sustainability is important for them. And for those who say it is very/extremely important, over 70 percent would pay a premium of 35 percent, on average, for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible.

The report revealed, based on an extensive survey of respondents worldwide (they conducted a research study of 18,980 consumers in 28 countries), that 81 percent belong to one of two shopper segments: Value-driven consumers (41 percent) who want good value and Purpose-driven consumers (40 percent) who seek products and services aligned with their values. Fifty-seven percent of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact.

Looking deeper, NRF/IBM’s report explained that Purpose-driven consumers (40 percent) seek products and brands that align with their lifestyle and those with health/wellness benefits. They are willing to pay a premium for products and services that align with their values and lifestyle. Purpose-driven consumers are also willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact and care about issues such as sustainability and recycling. Europe and parts of Southeast Asia and Latin America have the biggest representation of this group. Slightly over half (51 percent) of this group report middle or above middle income.

Retail and consumer products companies around the world have been increasing their focus on sustainability over the past five years. Since 2014, global sustainable and environmentally responsible investment is up 68 percent and now tops USD 30 trillion. More and more, awareness of global environmental issues is changing the habits of consumers wherever they live.

Already, substantial numbers of people have adopted a back-to-basics mindset, opting for products that are simple, fresh, and contain fewer or no preservatives or processed elements. These attitudes are driving brand choice, says NRF/IBM Business Values. Over 7 in 10 consumers say it’s at least moderately important that brands offer “clean” products (78 percent), are sustainable and environmentally responsible (77 percent), support recycling (76 percent), or use natural ingredients (72 percent).

Business leaders will also want to recognize that old, stereotypical ideas are moving on. Sustainability priorities transcend age, new studies validate. While Millennials may be leading the charge in sustainability awareness, every age group indicates that sustainability, environmental, and/or personal wellness attributes are significant considerations in selecting brands while Gen Zers cite health and wellness as their top priority, clean products are most important for the other groups. Interestingly, natural/organic attributes are of lower importance across age groups.

Still more comes from the new 11th Annual PwC/Consumer Insights Report 2020: The Consumer is Transformed. “The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the pace of behavioral changes around the world—how people work, eat, communicate, play and learn. And this extends to consumption patterns, too, in every category, including groceries, entertainment, health care and even data. It’s important for consumer companies of all kinds to understand the degree to which the current customer journey has already changed, and just how different it might still become.”

The report explained, “The acceleration of consumer trends and behavior that was already underway prior to the COVID-19 outbreak has taken another leap forward.” Research showed a clear embrace of sustainability and a sense of civic duty. For example, in survey results taken prior to the pandemic, 45 percent of our global respondents said they avoid the use of plastic whenever possible, 43 percent expect businesses to be accountable for their environmental impact, and 41 percent expect retailers to eliminate plastic bags and packaging for perishable items.

Steve Barr, global consumer markets leader for PwC U.S. said,” While certain trends have been on the upswing for quite some time, our research shows that the pandemic has sharpened consumers’ desire for transparency, sustainability and convenience. The companies that will reap the most rewards are the ones that have established trust with the consumer, invested in a seamless and frictionless end-to-end customer purchase journey and prioritized the consumers’ health and safety.”

Oz Ozturk, global consumer markets advisory leader for PwC U.K. said, “In our 11 years of surveying consumers around the globe, we have never documented such a clear convergence of themes around transparency, sustainability, and social consciousness. At such a pivotal moment, the need for consumer-facing companies to establish trust with potential customers could not be any clearer.” To download the full report, visit

A substantial proportion of U.S. consumers have become more focused on sustainability in their shopping journey due to Covid-19, according to another new survey by Coresight Research. In a survey of consumers last August, Coresight found that 29 percent of respondents said the pandemic has made environmental sustainability more of a factor when shopping. This compares to 16 percent that stated that the crisis made sustainability less of a factor.

Coresight also asked consumers what they consider to be the most important sustainability issues for retailers. Reducing plastics took the lead. Packaging is a huge concern for consumers in terms of sustainability. Making packaging biodegradable, recyclable or reusable was ranked the second-most important sustainability action for retailers, followed by reducing packaging.

Tracker information from Coresight is posted at

Forrester’s Oliwia Berdak, VP research director, recently wrote an article titled, “Rethinking Sustainability in the Middle of a Pandemic.” She stated, “Sustainability has become a business necessity, not just a differentiator. In the coming years, businesses will need to adapt to a host of new environmental, social and governance risks or face extinction. It is no longer a question of whether it is ‘necessary or not’ to launch sustainable business practices, but rather how long it will take before consumers, shareholders, or governments punish businesses that don’t.”

The optical industry is seriously starting to pay attention, through the commitment of small independent practices and eyecare providers, regional groups, national companies or eyewear producers, small and large. VM will continue to monitor this space, due to continued changes surely coming our way in 2021.