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What are the barriers to living sustainably?

We conducted research to explore the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on attitudes towards environmental sustainability

In the last year, 85%* of consumers think they’ve had to rein in their spending due to the cost-of-living crisis. In a perfect storm of rising interest rates, price hikes and stagnating wages, people across the UK are being forced to put affordability at the front and centre of their consumption choices. Shoppers looking to save cash are being forced to prioritise value over factors like quality, taste and convenience. But where does sustainability fit on this new priority list?

In 2020, EU leaders took a step towards climate neutrality with a new law that EU emissions must be cut by 55% by 2030. And everyone, from analysts and politicians through to brands and their customers, is justifiably concerned about how to commit to sustainable action and navigate the immediate economic landscape. But contrary to what we might expect, research shows that most UK households are still actively striving to make the shift towards an eco-friendly lifestyle.

Today’s shoppers are increasingly purposeful, with 50%* of consumers likely to consider the sustainability of a product before they purchase it. This is a significant shift, particularly given the fact that not so long ago, sustainability was perceived as a luxury. Conscious consumption doesn’t hinge on individual perfection; it’s about staying aware of those spending habits that are detrimental to our pockets and the planet. For example, indulging in a takeaway, splurging on fast fashion or accumulating unnecessary household items.

two women sitting outside a refill shop with coffee in their hands

Mind the generation gap 

Attitudes towards sustainable spending differ depending on a wide variety of factors, and arguably the most significant of these is age. Baby boomers, gen X, millennials and gen Z all agree that perceived high cost is often the biggest barrier to buying green. But when we dig deeper into the motivations behind their spending, some differences emerge:

Gen X and Boomers:

    • Invest in sustainable products to do their bit for the environment.
    • View sustainability as recycling and buying environmentally friendly products.
    • Being sceptical about the real impact of their actions may stop them from becoming more sustainable.
    • Less likely to spend more for sustainable products.


    • Invest in sustainable products as the brands align with their values.
    • View sustainability as cruelty-free and fairtrade products.
    • May not buy sustainable products if they perceive them to be of lower quality.
    • More likely spend more for sustainable products.

Gen Z

    • Invest in sustainable products that reflect their lifestyle choice and preferences.
    • View sustainability as vegan and cruelty-free products.
    • Lack of information may stop them buying sustainable products.
    • More likely to spend more for sustainable products.
Mobile scanning a QR code on clothes tag which states save our planet

Appealing to the sustainability minded consumer

Retailers and brands have an important role to play when it comes to making sustainability as accessible as possible. Although many consumers aspire to make eco-friendly choices, navigating the barriers and trade-offs related to sustainable products can be complex.

To attract cautious consumers, companies should focus on building trust. Fluffy or vague claims, as well as unclear information, can immediately deter potential customers. Instead, opt for transparency, innovation and a demonstration of value in areas beyond just price.

Some examples include:

Patagonia The philosophy “less is more” is taken quite literally by this adventure wear brand, which has rejected the fast-fashion business model in favour of using fully recyclable materials and investing in a repair and reuse programme. Although it operates at a premium price point, the brand reassures sceptical customers by offering high-quality and long-lasting clothes with a market-leading reputation.

H&M This international high street brand has pledged to use 30% recycled materials in its clothing by 2025 and hopes to increase the figure to 100% by 2030. It also uses a unique fabric recycling technology in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And in the interest of long-term thinking, a rental division of the brand will soon be launched, encouraging customers to rent and return their favourite pieces.

Levi’s Making jeans requires a great deal of water. So, Levi’s is testing new technology that will enable it to reduce its water consumption by 96%. Additionally, it is working towards sourcing 100% sustainable cotton and recycling old jeans with its new sustainability-led manufacturing process.


The role of brands

There’s no time to watch from the sidelines. Brands big and small should be thinking holistically about both sustainability and the cost of living. Consumers, now more than ever, want to feel that they’re empowered with the right tools to act, and brands have the opportunity to lead the charge by setting an example.


* Statistic from Linney research 2023

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