Global consumer concerns over climate change and food shortages escalate

Climate change, air quality and plastic pollution are global consumers’ top three environmental concerns.

Consumer fears over climate change have escalated around the globe over the last year. According to new research from the 2022 Mintel Consulting Sustainability Barometer, the number of global consumers citing climate change as a top three environmental concern has risen from an average of 39% to 46% between 2021-22*.

In addition to climate change, concern over water shortages (up from 27% in 2021 to 31% in 2022) and food shortages (up from 17% to 23%) have made the most significant gains in terms of environmental priorities in the past 12 months as extreme weather events and the conflict in Ukraine make these troubling realities more commonplace.

Climate change remains the world’s highest environmental priority with nearly half (46%) of consumers globally citing it among their top three concerns. Air quality (eg exhaust fumes, industrial emissions) at 36%, and plastic pollution (eg ocean plastic) at 33% complete the world’s top three environmental concerns; however, concerns about plastic pollution are down slightly from 36% in 2021.

Growing awareness is evident as just under three in five (58%) consumers globally agree that extreme weather events (eg flooding, heatwaves) in the country where they live encourage them to personally do more activities to protect the environment. Furthermore, it seems helping the planet brings a feel-good factor as 68% of consumers globally say doing things that benefit the environment makes them feel happy. While 38% say they want to show other people how they are doing good for the environment (eg by sharing on social media). A further 24% say they have researched their annual carbon footprint (eg with an online calculator or app).

While environmental priorities have shifted in the last year, consumers’ sustainable behaviours remain focused on simplicity and frugality: recycling packaging (59% in 2022 v 60% in 2021), meal planning to avoid food waste (53% in 2022 v 52% in 2021) and reducing clothes buying (50% in 2022 v 52% in 2021) remain the top global sustainable behaviours 2022-2021. Furthermore, global consumers’ optimism has stalled with 55% believing that if we act now, we still have time to save the planet, compared to 54% who said the same last year.

The second annual Mintel Consulting Sustainability Barometer features research and insight on consumers’ sustainability attitudes, behaviours and purchase preferences across 16 countries*. It offers recommendations for companies and brands based on best-in-class innovations, communications and campaigns.

Richard Cope, senior trends consultant at Mintel Consulting, said: “The fact that concerns around climate change and water and food shortages are being prioritised ahead of previous preoccupations with waste and plastic pollution points towards the emergence of a more informed and hardened global consumer. Soaring temperatures, extreme weather events and disruptions to food, water and energy supply chains have given consumers a harsh reality check, hurting their health and wallets, and activating them in the process.

“In the meantime, escalating activism, regulatory reaction and the sheer scale of the challenges ahead and solutions required have educated global consumers enough to sniff out greenwashing campaigns and there’s no going back from that. This means companies will increasingly need to assert — and clearly communicate — the truly impactful actions they are taking to reduce emissions, rather than simply offset them or dip their toes into populist ‘plastic free’ campaigns. This growing awareness around resource inputs and emission and waste outputs will also spell the end for ‘environmentally friendly’ as a credible marketing term.

“Our research shows that the majority of consumers continue to see recycling and mitigating waste as important sustainable behaviours. This tells us that simple, frugal behaviours are the most popular among consumers which underlines the fact that brands’ sustainability initiatives need to deliver on value and convenience. Looking ahead to 2023, expect to see resource (food, water, money) conservation ascend further up the agenda and the use of economising technology refurbishers and urban peer access sharing economies to grow. For consumers, the connections between saving the environment, its resources and their money will strengthen.”

*500 internet users aged 16/18+ across 16 countries were surveyed in March 2021: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, UK, US; 1,000 internet users aged 16/18+ across 16 countries were surveyed in April 2022, with Poland and Ireland replaced by Indonesia and Mexico.