Sustainable Development

The global eco-wakening: how consumers are driving sustainability

Nature is worth $44 trillion to the global economy, according to a recent World Economic Forum estimate. Image: Caleb Jones/Unsplash

Cristianne Close
Deputy Chief Conservation Officer, WWF International
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• New research shows support for sustainable business is growing in both developed and developing economies.

• Many consumers believe brands bear as much responsibility for positive change as governments.

• Business must commit to protecting nature and natural systems.

Momentum has been building for some time around brand purpose – a reason to exist beyond making money. Now, given the latest research published today, we know that it’s no longer acceptable or smart to ignore sustainability in business.

It should be of considerable interest to the business community then that a key finding in a new global report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by WWF, shows a staggering 71% rise in online searches for sustainable goods globally over the past five years.

This “eco-wakening” is not just occurring among consumers in high-income countries, but is also strong in developing and emerging economies, with an increase of 24% in Indonesia, for example, and a phenomenal rise of 120% in Ecuador.

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Over the same time frame, public concern for nature globally has risen by 16% and has continued growing during the pandemic. Since 2016, over 159 million people have signed online petitions in support of nature, with protests growing in strength and frequency. A remarkable 96% of survey respondents in Brazil see nature loss as a serious problem.

Waking up to nature

Early in my career in the agricultural and food sector, I spent long hours driving through the Pampas in Argentina and Sao Paulo state in Brazil, encouraging large soy and sugar cane farmers to invest in socio-environmental initiatives and supply-chain sustainability. The answer I got was almost always the same: “Consumers don’t care about sustainability or deforestation – they just want cheap food.”

Perhaps at the time, they were right, especially in those developing economies. Today, things have changed. While economic development is still the priority for most countries, we realize that for cheap products today, we may pay a very high price tomorrow as nature loss and climate breakdown really bite.

And for many people, and especially those living in emerging economies and supplying global value chains, eco-wakening is driven by personal experience of the devastating impacts of fires, floods, droughts and COVID-19.

Nature means business

The message is loud and clear. Today, consumers around the world do want to live more sustainably. Many expect businesses to play a positive role in society and feel that when it comes to driving positive change, brands bear as much responsibility as governments.

In one survey, 66% of all respondents, and 75% of millennial respondents, said they consider sustainability when making a purchase. In China, 41% of consumers say that they want eco-friendly products. And as social media channels continue to burgeon, the voice of younger generations will only increase the demand for sustainability.

With customers switching products or services when a company violates their values, there are without doubt growing market opportunities for companies willing and ready to respond, especially those offering eco-friendly products or speaking up against weakening of environmental protection.

In the UK, the market for ethically and sustainably sourced goods in 2019 was worth £41 billion, its value having risen almost fourfold within 20 years, and in India sales of organic products have grown by 13% since 2018.

Born of our destructive relationship with nature, COVID-19 has made us reflect on our priorities, and ask ourselves questions like: “What if we made smarter choices and consumed less?” If we want a better future, we cannot go back to business as usual. The good news is that some sectors and companies are responding.

In fashion and textiles, over 50% of C-Suite executives say consumer demand is driving their pursuit of sustainability, and many have committed to sourcing sustainably produced raw materials. And in the food, cosmetics and natural pharmaceuticals sectors, many famous brands have committed to sourcing practices that benefit people and biodiversity, with membership of the Union for Ethical BioTrade increasing by 45% from 2016 to 2020.

Consumer preference is driving entire industries to change, and no market or sector is unaffected.

Going nature-positive

At a macro-economic level, nature-positive transitions for the food, infrastructure and extractives sectors could generate over $10 trillion in annual business value to 2030 and create 395 million jobs. And the World Economic Forum’s own analysis puts nature’s value to the global economy at $44 trillion – more than half of global GDP.

With the business case clear, what more can companies do to reverse nature loss and realize the promise of a nature-positive global economy?

Companies can commit to protecting nature and natural systems, including by setting science-based targets for nature and ambitious greenhouse-gas emissions reductions. They can deliver on these commitments by protecting nature and natural systems in the landscapes where they operate, or from which they source commodities, by using tools and approaches such as the Accountability Framework, and through reshaping markets. And they can call for an ambitious Paris-style global agreement for nature that helps secure a nature-positive world by 2030.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

Brands that deliver on pursuit of purpose, that drive a culture of sustainable innovation, are the front runners in consumers’ eyes – and they are watching.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Sustainable DevelopmentNature and Biodiversity
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