Sustainability: Consumers care, but don’t necessarily act

Published on 2021-09-27 by Tessa Anaya

a bike, plant, and recycling symbol represent lifestyle adaptations that can be made to increase sustainability in Canada

Events in the news have brought our impact on the planet into sharp focus. From the actions of Extinction Rebellion to extreme weather events like the summer heatwave of 2021 —which saw the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Canada— the climate emergency has become hard to ignore. Or has it?

To understand more about how consumers view sustainability in Canada, we surveyed 1,000 of them. They answered questions on their attitudes to sustainability, what actions they take (if any), and how important it is to them as consumers and employees.

You can find a full methodology at the bottom of this article.

What is sustainable business?

According to Export Development Canada, “responsible and sustainable business is a proven formula for long-term success.” It describes sustainable business as having four categories:

  • Protecting the environment and people
  • Conducting business with the highest level of integrity
  • Building a supportive and inclusive workplace
  • Contributing to the communities where we live and work
Did you know? Many businesses use sustainability software to manage their environmental impact, foster diverse, inclusive workplaces, and promote social responsibility.

58% say sustainability influences their purchases

Our consumption of goods and resources is having an effect on the planet. Plastic waste in the oceans and the destruction of forest for the production of palm oil are just two examples. Consumers can make a difference by choosing products that don’t use these components, and manufacturers can play their part by phasing them out of their products altogether. Some manufacturers may choose to make their products more sustainable precisely because they see a market for it. 

44% of the people we surveyed say that the sustainability actions of companies have a ‘moderate influence’ on their selection of products or providers. 14% say their purchases are ‘very much’ influenced by these actions.

The most important category for consumers in terms of sustainability is food and drink, chosen by 23% of respondents. This was followed by clothes and fashion (17%) and vehicles (15%). These choices are perhaps not surprising. Food production is associated with many sustainability issues. As well as the controversy surrounding the use of palm oil (as mentioned above), there are also ethical questions about the treatment of animals in the meat and dairy industries, scrutiny of how intensive farming affects wildlife through pesticides and monocultures, and the transportation of food around the globe with a corresponding output of greenhouse gases.

bar graph showing the importance of sustainable purchases by ranking of importance

However, when it comes to how sustainability actually influences their specific actions, not many consumers appear to have changed their behaviour. Only 21% check the ingredients of products before purchase, and the same proportion checks the packaging. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot about the way we live. In addition to impacting our working and social lives, it’s affected how we shop, too. Two-thirds (67%) of the respondents to our survey said that the pandemic has made them reassess the way they buy. For 1 in 5, this change has been radical: 20% agree that they ‘want to be more conscious and buy more sustainable products.’ 

Did you know? Businesses that want to be able to answer consumers’ questions about product sustainability may want to use catalog management software. These tools allow businesses to make product information —such as materials, origin, and production process— available to all team members who may field questions.

10% is a fair premium for sustainability, say consumers

Of those respondents for whom sustainability has minimal or no influence on their purchasing, the major reason is cost. 42% say that it’s because sustainable products are usually more expensive than non-sustainable ones.

The US Environmental Protection Agency attributes this cost difference to low demand, among other factors, and says that prices will drop as demand increases. However, in our survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents overall (62%) think that sustainable products are fairly priced.

While sustainable products can cost 50% more than regular products, we wanted to find out how much of a premium over ‘standard’ goods people would be willing to pay. Across all categories, a plurality think that 10% is a fair premium, a finding that is remarkably consistent with the same survey we conducted among UK consumers.

bar graph showing consumer trends in sustainability in canada based on different industries

Sustainability expectations of companies are not high

Only 28% of the Canadian consumers we spoke to think it’s important that companies include sustainability in their values. This figure is low compared to the UK, for example, where 50% of consumers consider this important. Similarly, 26% of Canadians think it’s important that companies undertake actions for the environment — another low figure compared with 53% of Brits.

Canadians also seem somewhat skeptical of companies’ intentions. 39% think firms’ main goal when advocating for sustainability is to affect real change, but 38% believe it’s just for PR or marketing purposes. This is perhaps not surprising given the potential of ‘greenwashing’— where brands make false or misleading claims about their sustainability credentials. The Canadian government actually has a guide to help businesses understand this, which explains how they must be able to back up such claims.

Environmental actions are most important to consumers

In general, respondents to our survey had a very high awareness of sustainability. 52% ‘definitely know it’ while 42% are ‘a bit familiar with it’, totalling 94% overall. When asked whether environmental concerns or social ones were more important  71% said the former compared to 29% for the latter.

Environmental sustainability includes actions such as reducing waste, preventing pollution, adopting clean energy, using sustainable materials, and making products sustainable. To help, companies often use tools like waste management software or emissions management software.

Social sustainability practices may include health and social equity, diversity and inclusion, and labour rights, practices, and decent working conditions. To help them maintain high standards in these areas, companies could explore workforce management software and human resources software

However, this macro-level view of sustainability does not translate to views on specific actions. Around one quarter or less of respondents actually consider specific acts important. When respondents were asked which three sustainable actions are especially important, the most commonly selected option was reducing the use of plastics (26%).

a pie graph of the sustainable actions everyday people can take, ranked by their importance according to consumers

Sustainability concerns are high among Canadian employees

Although respondents to our survey do not have high engagement with sustainability as consumers, they do as employees. More than one-third (37%) say they have suggested sustainability initiatives at work that were subsequently implemented by their employers. And more than half (51%) say the degree of sustainability of a company would influence their decision when applying for a job.  

Although less than half of respondents (48%) can say for certain that their employer has sustainability measures in place, most rate their employers highly across a range of sustainability criteria. Companies consistently scored 4 out of 5 for inclusion and diversity, local community impact, employee wellbeing, and environmental impact. 

Did you know? To get employees involved in corporate sustainability efforts, consider employee engagement software. These platforms often offer surveys, gamification tools, and analytics to improve communication between management and the workforce.

Key takeaways

  • Overall, Canadian consumers have high awareness of sustainability and think that the environment is important.
  • The pandemic has changed the way Canadians buy, prompting them to look for more sustainable products.
  • 58% say that sustainability influences their purchases, but around a quarter or less take specific action when making purchases.
  • Most would be prepared to pay 10% more for sustainable goods.
Looking for sustainability software? Check out our catalogue.

Survey methodology:

To collect the data for this report, we conducted an online survey in July 2021. 

Of the total respondents, we were able to identify 1000 Canadian respondents that fit within our criteria:

  • Canadian resident
  • Over 18 years-old
  • Employed full-time or part-time

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Content Analyst at Capterra, dedicated to helping SMBs access the insights that elevate their organizations. B.A. in English, University of Michigan. Based in Barcelona.

Content Analyst at Capterra, dedicated to helping SMBs access the insights that elevate their organizations. B.A. in English, University of Michigan. Based in Barcelona.