Consumers are prioritising concerns around climate change and water and food shortages ahead of waste and plastic pollution, according to new research. 

The 2022 Mintel Consulting Sustainability Barometer found that 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. Concerns over water shortages is up from 27% in 2021 to 31% in 2022, while apprehension around food shortages has risen from 17% to 23% in the same time. Mintel said these concerns have made the most significant gains in terms of environmental priorities, as extreme weather events and the conflict in Ukraine “make these troubling realities more commonplace”.

 The research firm signalled that “consumers’ optimism” regarding the health of the global environment has stalled, with 55% saying that there is still time to “save the planet”, compared to 54% in 2021. The report found “extreme weather events” were a main motivator (58%) for consumers to participate in sustainable activities. A further 68% said “doing things that benefit the environment” brought about feelings of happiness. 

While environmental priorities have shifted, sustainable shopping behaviours remain largely the same as 2021, with a focus on “simplicity and frugality”. The percentage of consumers participating in sustainable shopping activity stayed similar to the previous year, with 59% of consumers viewing recycling packaging as a top priority (compared to 60% in 2021). This was followed by 53% who mentioned food waste reduction (versus 52% in 2021). 

“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,” said Richard Cope, senior trends consultant at Mintel Consulting. “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.” 

 He said escalating activism, regulatory reaction and the scale of the challenges ahead 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.”

 Looking ahead to 2023, Cope said he expects 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,” he finished.