For businesses, making operations more eco-friendly can help boost efficiency and lower energy costs. It can also attract the “sustainable consumer" to a brand, as this buyer persona prefers patronizing companies that participate in responsible consumption and production. To help marketers reach eco-conscious consumers, we compiled key insights from our market research into an informative guide. 

a guide for marketing to the sustainable consumer

Smart shoppers are always looking for alternative ways to spend less money and prolong the use of their purchases. Some look to companies with eco-friendly practices to do so, such as those selling second-hand goods or participating in the circular economy —which is valuable information for employees in charge of marketing strategies

As evidenced in our 2022 Circular Economy Survey, Canadians are more likely to participate in the second-hand economy than consumers in countries such as France or the UK. Eco-conscious consumer trends signify a big opportunity for businesses making sustainability efforts, as these can be used to market specifically to sustainable consumers. 

To help marketers capitalize on these trends in 2023, we’ve carried out a meta-analysis of multiple surveys commissioned by Capterra and its affiliate companies and compiled a guide that will help marketers identify the profile of a sustainable consumer, their priorities, and their likes and dislikes. The study methodology is at the end of this article. 

Priorities of the sustainable consumer

The idea of the “sustainable consumer” comes from the understanding that social and environmental perspectives may weigh into the buying process for some people, ultimately shaping sustainable consumer behaviour. 

What is sustainable consumer behaviour? Sustainable consumers can be identified by creating buyer personas of those who prioritize sustainability in their consumption choices and preferences. Some examples of sustainable consumer behaviour include researching a company’s sustainable actions, choosing products with biodegradable or recycled packaging, and reselling products instead of throwing them away.

According to our 2022 Circular Economy Survey, many consumers may already be practicing sustainable behaviours, at least when it comes to the circular economy. 40% of consumers surveyed take a company’s circular economy efforts into consideration before purchasing a product. A further 41% would like to have a circular economy friendly option to consider, leaving only 18% of surveyed buyers who aren’t at all interested in practicing this type of sustainability.

graph of consumer views on sustainability

Investigating why and how consumers select, use, and dispose of products in pursuit of their sustainability goals can help companies identify and appeal to the sustainable consumer. Researching buyer intent and the decision-making process can also help market to consumers who want to support environmentally and/or socially responsible businesses. 

Sustainable consumers want to use their dollar power to support businesses treating the environment well, which many Canadians agree with. In our 2022 Circular Economy Survey, 87% of Canadians surveyed agreed with the belief that their behaviour and choices can have a positive impact on addressing global environmental challenges. 

When it comes to the buying habits of sustainable consumers, the same percentage of Canadians (87%) said they would rather buy products from companies that apply circular economy practices than from ones that do not. With a clear majority of consumers surveyed indicating a desire to shop with eco-friendly businesses, companies should consider taking measures (such as reducing emissions or improving production processes) to comply with customer preferences.

Tip for marketers: As some consumers are taking their views on sustainability into considerations for purchases, marketing campaigns would do well to address them head on. Sustainable consumers are consciously picking goods and services that are more eco-friendly, so be sure to feature claims of environmentally friendly practices on the packaging labels of your products and in the company’s messaging (e.g. via social media or email marketing).

Examples of sustainable consumer behaviour

Certain types of sustainable measures may be seen as more attractive than others for the sustainable consumer. According to our survey data, purchasing kilometre-zero products, participating in buy-back programs, and buying/selling second-hand goods draw significant interest from consumers.

Local products

Locally produced products, also known as kilometre-zero products, often produce fewer negative environmental impacts than imported goods, as transportation routes are shorter and less packaging may be needed. They also help stimulate the local economy rather than the global economy, allowing consumers to empower their communities through their purchases.

One in five consumers (20%) in our Circular Economy Survey reported buying kilometre-zero products on a regular basis. Dedicated shoppers aren’t the only ones seeking out local products, as another 55% report buying them “sometimes.” Having locally produced products on offer can draw in a significant amount of consumers, but it may also help companies avoid supply chain issues, such as logistical challenges that may arise when purchasing from distant suppliers.

 statistics of sustainable consumer behaviour regarding local and kilometre-zero products

Buy-back and trade-in programs

Some companies create policies where consumers are able to sell their used items back to the retailer for a reduced price or store credit, often called “buy-back” or “sell-back” programs. Companies like Ikea and Best Buy have launched their own versions of these, and research indicates consumers may be looking to participate in more of them.

A majority of Canadians surveyed (88%) say they care about extending the life cycle of the products they buy, although only a third (34%) indicated they “usually” or “sometimes” participate in buy-back programs. 

The gap between interest and action could signal a business opportunity for product-sellers, even if only some parts of a product can be reused. When asked what would be the most effective efforts a company could take to stimulate the circular economy, among the measures that related to extending product life cycles, the most selected were: 

  • 67% want companies to reuse materials in the production process
  • 64% think companies should produce products with longer life cycles
  • 60% would want companies to produce renewable products
  • 58% think companies should remanufacture and refurbish products
  • 57% want to see companies implement a product buy-back or recycling program
  • 48% want companies to offer free product repair

Second-hand shopping

In our 2022 Circular Economy Survey, Canadians showed themselves to be active participants in the second-hand economy. Only 7% of consumers here report never buying second-hand products. Furthermore, 43% of consumers think that if companies included second-hand products in their offers, it would be one of the most admirable efforts an organization could take to boost the circular economy (which could, in turn, boost brand reputation). 

The hustle and bustle of participation in the second-hand economy in Canada could be a great sign for companies wishing to make sustainable efforts. For example, a business implementing a buy-back program to entice sustainable consumers could arrange to resell used goods to the many shoppers who’d be interested in them. 

Tip for SMEs: Launching any of these examples of sustainable initiatives will likely require a change in operations. Equip your production, marketing, and decision-making teams with tools to manage change, as creating more eco-friendly processes can influence the goals and values of an entire company, not only single departments.

Attracting second-hand consumers online

Statistics show that the second-hand market in Canada is a lucrative one; in 2021, used clothing imported to Canada from the United States amounted to approximately US$46.48 million. Although much of second-hand consumerism happens in person, there are signs of a boom in these activities online as well.

In our 2022 Circular Economy Survey, 59% of second-hand shoppers turned to online marketplaces that offered a range of products. 16% also looked for goods via apps and websites specializing in a specific product category, and 14% turned to brands that have their own second-hand offering.

As retailers begin to move second-hand and sustainable offerings online, eCommerce trends could help boost their success. In our 2022 Metaverse Survey, 61% of respondents who preferred online shopping said they liked that it was quicker than in-person shopping. 49% also liked to shop online because it was easier to find the products they were looking for, and a further 40% liked having a wider range of options to choose from.

online shopping preferences for sustainable businesses
Tip for SMEs: To ensure customers have quick, up-to-date information about a range of products in an online shop, inventory management processes must be tightly monitored. This is especially important when it comes to selling second-hand or used goods online, as they are often one-of-a-kind and cannot be oversold. 

Consumers who prefer shopping online generally find most of the digital retail experience easy, but there are some areas for improvement retailers should keep in mind. A quarter of respondents in this group (26%) found receiving customer support a difficult aspect of online shopping, while others (31%) had difficulty getting a good idea of how the product would look or feel in person.

To address issues that shoppers may face online, there are a few things retailers can do. Equipping your customer service team with digital tools (such as live chat or chatbot assistants) can help them keep track of digital interactions more effectively. 

As far as marketing second-hand and sustainable goods in a representative way, retailers could employ models or product stagers to give shoppers a realistic view. To that end, photo editing tools or even augmented reality software could be used to help customers see or try products virtually before purchasing. 

Important considerations 

Eco-friendly consumption habits are certainly interesting to take into account, as 58% of respondents to our 2021 Sustainability Survey say sustainable actions have a moderate to high influence when it comes to product selection. 

While companies may jump at the chance to market to the sustainable consumer, it’s important to note potential pitfalls before changing strategy. Backing up sustainable claims with proof is vital, otherwise they can be seen as marketing ploys, or worse: greenwashing. There’s a risk of losing customers if eco-friendly claims aren’t proven true: more than half of respondents to our 2022 Circular Economy Survey (54%) “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed they would stop buying products from a company if they found out it did nothing to support a more sustainable/circular economy.

On the other hand, companies have a lot to gain by taking steps to improve their sustainability. In our Sustainability Survey, 31% of companies who invested in sustainable measures say they experienced a positive change in brand reputation because of them. 30% also achieved higher customer retention, and 27% were able to reach new customers completely. 

benefits of responsible consumption and production as per managers in Canada

The key to reaping customer-related benefits by investing in sustainable measures is to research which efforts would resonate most with existing and potential customers. Track what consumers are saying about your brand as well as your competitors with social listening tools, or interact on social media to engage them more directly on the topic.

Whether your business goals are related to reputation, customer satisfaction, or even improved employee retention, investing in sustainability can be a helpful avenue to explore. 

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This Capterra Guide to the Sustainable Consumer article identifies trends that are the result of a meta-analysis of multiple surveys commissioned by Capterra and its affiliate companies.

This report includes data from online surveys conducted between July 2021 and October 2022. Each survey was sent to approximately 1,000 consumers. Participants were older than 18 and resident in Canada. The results derived will be representative of the participants who took the survey and not the entire country/region.

Participant selection criteria for each of the surveys used for this report are as follows:

  • Sustainability Survey 2021: To conduct the consumer survey, we interviewed 1,000 full- or part-time employees. The business survey was conducted with 288 full- or part-time employees in a managerial position (manager, director, or owner) of an SME (with 2-250 employers) with sustainable measures in place.
  • Circular Economy Survey 2022: The 1,006 Canadian participants were able to identify the concept of a circular economy after being shown a definition and were required to submit their generational identity. For the French and UK versions of this survey, 1,010 and 1,027 participants fulfilling the same criteria were surveyed. 
  • Metaverse Survey 2022: The 997 participants were younger than 75 years of age and were able to identify the concept of the metaverse after being shown a definition.