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THE NEW GREEN CONSUMER: HOW EMERGING TRENDS ARE SHAPING SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVES

March 15, 2021Our point of view

Around the world, consumer behavior is undergoing a dramatic change. Purchasing has become a political act, with those brands that seek to make the world a better place being rewarded by growing sales and increased customer loyalty. In this focus on Latin America, we look at how, as the region’s population seeks to buy the change they want to see for the future, companies must improve on sustainability and environmental issues – or risk losing out.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE GREEN CONSUMER

In recent years, shoppers worldwide have begun to understand that their purchasing power can make change happen. Consumers are calling for businesses to put their values on display, and rewarding those who align with their values.

This is a paradigm shift from the consumer activism of yesteryear when brand boycotts were a means of applying pressure on big firms. In a recent report by research firm Weber Shandwick on this changing landscape, it was found that 83% of consumers now prefer positive activism – showing support for companies by buying from them, rather than avoiding those whose practices they disagree with.

In today’s hyperconnected world, where purchasing decisions are influenced as much by social media as by advertising, the impact of consumer support on a brand’s reputation is immense. And while consumer activism takes many forms, it is increasingly a companies’ environmental and sustainability performance that shoppers are honing in on, with consumer insights company Nielsen calculating a near-50% jump in sustainable product sales in 2021, as compared to 2014. 

LATIN AMERICA TAKES THE LEAD

In its 2019 report, Nielsen found Latin America to be ahead of the global curve when it comes to sustainable consumption. Fully 85% of Latin American consumers said that they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment – versus just 73% globally.

While the majority of consumer efforts are still focused on tangible gains – such as selecting products with recyclable or less packaging, a growing trend has emerged with consumers seeking out companies who go even further

In 2018, Colombian food company Tosh became the country’s first major brand to become certified as carbon neutral, offsetting 17,000 tons of CO2 each year and overhauling its branding to demonstrate its sustainability credentials to customers. Meanwhile, Brazil’s largest cosmetics multinational, Natura, strictly controls and monitors all carbon emissions relating to its packaging, logistics, production, and transport processes. And a few years ago Chile became the home of the world’s first carbon-neutral wine.

This focus on carbon neutrality is also starting to filter through to corporate energy consumption. In the face of consumer pressure to go green and reduce their impact on the environment, multinational consumer goods brands and manufacturers that have set up bases in Latin America must change their approach and rethink where they source their electricity needs from.

This is the beginning of an unstoppable transformation. Consumers no longer simply want sustainable products – they want the companies they are buying from to be sustainable all the way through their corporate operations. In fact, this trend is even more evident in Latin America than in other global regions, largely because the impact of climate change is already making itself felt – from melting Andean glaciers to extreme weather events. When asked by LAPOP’s AmericasBarometer how serious a problem climate change is in their country, 75% of South Americans and 82% of Mexicans and Central Americans characterized it as “very serious” – compared to just 40% in the United States and Canada.

This is also a generational shift – the latest Global Sustainable Shoppers Report carried out by Nielsen showed that 85% of Latin American millennials (those born in the 1980s and early 1990s) are concerned about how sustainable companies’ production processes are, versus 72% of their parent’s generation, the baby boomers. And if the upswing in climate activism we have seen from generation Z so far is anything to go by, this trend will only continue.

THE EVENTS OF 2020 ACCELERATED THE TREND

There is, of course, another factor driving increased consumer consciousness around sustainability. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated unequivocally the relationship between humans and the natural world, as well as the degree to which everyone on earth is interconnected. As a result, for consumers, the sustainability agenda has taken on new importance. 

A recent survey by consulting firm BCG found that nine-tenths of consumer respondents said that they were equally or more concerned about environmental issues in the wake of the virus outbreak, and nearly 95% said they believed their personal actions could help reduce unsustainable waste, tackle climate change, and protect wildlife and biodiversity. Almost a third said that this belief had strengthened as a result of the crisis.

However, as companies continue to struggle with the lingering impacts of movement restrictions, supply chain disruptions, and slumping demand caused by the pandemic, prioritizing sustainability and environmental performance is, for many, last on the list.

We
believe that would be a mistake. Consumer pressure isn’t going away – it’s only increasing. Companies that sideline their efforts now are likely storing up risks for the future, while those that choose to re-engage with sustainability initiatives will gain a distinct competitive advantage.

RENEWABLE ENERGY – A SOLID STRATEGY

A pragmatic way to achieve the kind of sustainability that consumers increasingly expect is to look at what can garner the greatest impact on carbon emissions. For the vast majority of companies, that’s their energy consumption, which is why, right across the region, a growing number of firms are shifting to renewables, and civil society is stepping up to support them.

Indeed, companies in Latin America are at a comparative advantage versus many of their counterparts around the world. Ample renewable resources along with an enabling regulatory framework in many countries have paved the way for more and more corporate energy users to go green. 

This growing interest has driven a surge in the number of corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy, with 2019 witnessing a threefold increase in deals signed. A tailor-made contract between a corporate off-taker and a power producer, renewable PPAs allow companies to purchase or generate enough renewable energy to match 100 percent or more of their electricity use over the course of the year, allowing them to ensure the very basis of their operations is sustainable. 

Our team, for example, was the first to implement a solar private PPA in Chile some eight years ago, and we’ve since replicated this success in Brazil and Mexico. In 2020, Atlas Renewable Energy signed over 660MW in corporate PPAs in Latin America, making us the top developer in the region by contracted volume, according to Bloomberg. As companies adjust to new consumer demands, we’re seeing an increasing number of inquiries by business leaders asking how they can harness renewable energy to meet their ESG objectives. The numbers are clear: According to a recent study by Stanford University which looked at the impact on companies’ carbon emissions by switching to renewables, a 100% solar strategy would reduce annual carbon emissions by as much as 119% of a company’s carbon footprint – leading to a huge leap forward in its environmental performance. 

The new green consumer of today doesn’t just want to know the origins of what they buy, or how it’s packaged. They want to see real commitments by companies that they are doing everything they can to minimize their impact on the environment. Sustainability is no longer an add-on, and we believe that a solid energy strategy with renewables at its core should be a foundational pillar of a companies’ efforts to respond to consumer demands.

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