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Study shows most Americans will pay more for sustainable products but don't know where to start

a sign reads "planet earth first" with a blue heart world and palm trees and flowers in the background map
Image Credit: Photo Boards by Lauris Rozentals and Create & Bloom // Unsplash

“The data is clear: Consumers overwhelmingly want sustainable products and are willing to pay more for them. Companies that understand sustainability as a strategic business asset are well positioned to gain market share and grow faster than their competitors.”

That’s the word from Brandon Logsdon, President of Consumer Engagement at PDI Technologies, a 40-year-old retail insight firm that, in 2022, after acquiring the analysis firm GreenPrint, established PDI Sustainability Solutions.

Over 2021 and 2022, the firm conducted the Business of Sustainability Index, BOSI, which showed that 64% and 66% of Americans said they would pay more for sustainable products. Now, in 2023 the BOSI shows that the number has increased to 68%.

The PDI survey was conducted online by Directions Research, and polled 1,038 U.S. adults aged 18 and older. The sample was parallel with U.S. demographics for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, and geographic region.

As per usual, younger folks were especially open to paying more for sustainability, with 77% of Gen Z (ages 18-26) and 72% of Millennials (ages 27-42) saying they would do so. (Whoa, Millennials are 42?!) Plus, Baby Boomers and Gen X weren’t far behind, with 62% and 67% saying they’d also pay more.

The BOSI also broke the stats down across political lines, economic lines, and environments. While there were differences among Democrats versus Republicans, urban versus rural, and $50K versus $100K households, over 50% of each group wanted more sustainable products.

If the desire to pay more for sustainability wasn’t enough, some respondents, notably Gen Z, also want to work for companies that put the planet first, with 37% reporting so. PDI notes that this number will likely grow as Gen Z infiltrates the workforce.

But, something that stands out with the new BOSI is that despite rising inflation and corporate price gouging, parents are the most likely to open their wallets for sustainability, with 76% saying they’d gladly pay more. However, the problem is that most people — parents, Millennials, and Gen Z included — want to put their money where their mouth is, but don’t know exactly where to put it.

In general, these sustainable products look like brands that are more environmentally friendly and help reduce personal carbon footprints, whether they be banks that put client’s money to work for the good of the planet, electrifying one’s home, toilet paper that trees don’t have to get cut down for, or bacon, meat alternatives, fish, cheese, and cooking oil that doesn’t come at the expense of animals and natural resources.

In fact, the leading products Americans are willing to pay more for when it comes to the environment are food/restaurants and utilities, which 70% of respondents said would be worth the higher price.

When asked about gas specifically, the BOSI recorded that most Americans would pay a higher premium at the pump for gas coupled with carbon offset like planting trees. 64% to be exact, with higher percentages for Millenials, Gen Z, and parents. And while tree-planting carbon offsets come with their own set of problems (like not actually reducing the carbon footprint of an individual or company) the sentiment that most people would pay to have their necessities coupled with them is hopeful.

As the electric vehicle revolution rises, 57% said they would pay more for an environmentally-friendly car rental, with 67% for a more sustainable hotel and 56% for a more planet-friendly airline.

However, many consumers are skeptical, and according to PDI the biggest problem with sustainable products isn’t that people are uninterested. It’s that they are unsure if the products are truthfully better for the environment.

“Consumers want sustainability but struggle to find it. Even when they do, they often don't trust the environmental claims companies make,” Logsdon said in a statement.

A leading number in the study was 79%: the percentage of Americans who said they want to buy from brands that are environmentally friendly but don’t know how to identify these companies, with nearly half of the consumers reporting that American corporations are doing a bad job of reducing their carbon footprints and that of their services and products. This shows a growth in dissatisfaction from the last PDI survey.

Overwhelmingly so, Gen Z, Millennials, and parents don’t know how to identify truthfully sustainable companies, coming in at 91%, 80%, and 85% respectively. Plus, over a third of Gen Z, 37%, wants corporate profits to support environmental organizations, a nine-point increase from overall respondents (28%).

The fact that Americans are actually craving truthful sustainability is an opportunity for both business and the planet. Additionally, data supporting that most are suspicious of greenwashing and actively searching for evidence of sustainability sends an even louder message.

PDI gives insight into how businesses can do better. According to the respondents, over half want clearer language on the products and services they’re buying, and just under half want a third-party or independent validation of claims.

“Leveraging internal tools and third-party accreditation to help measure, track, and communicate progress will continue to differentiate the sustainability gains of their products, services, and overall enterprises,” Logsdon said.


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