COLORADO SPRINGS, US (ICIS)--Consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products that can be recycled or reused, according to a new survey of 6,000 people worldwide by consultancy Accenture.
The survey comes at a time when the chemical industry is trying to find ways to address growing concerns about plastic waste, whether it is through pursuing recycling programmes with other industries or by developing materials that are easier to recover or reuse.
According to the Accenture survey, more than half of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable products that are designed to be reused or recycled.
The results of the survey match up with other consumer trends, according to Jessica Long, managing director at Accenture Strategy.
She made her comments to ICIS on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the US' chemicals trade group the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in Colorado Springs.
The preferences revealed by the latest survey exceed those from earlier, more informal ones, Long said.
Accenture surveyed 6,000 consumers in 11 countries in the North America, Europe and Asia, making it large enough to divide it into segments. Those segments also illustrate the main finding of the survey.
“There were some big differences in age groups and also geographies. 69% of those under the age of 40 would pay more for sustainable toys and electronics, while older respondents were not as willing to pay more,” said Long.
However, the trend and changes in attitudes are clear. “This is a huge shift. Informally, about 5-10 years ago only around 10% of people would be willing to pay more,” said Long.
This is evidenced by the growth of sustainable products, whether it is organic foods, renewable energy, electric vehicles or energy efficient appliances, the consultant pointed out.
“The shift in consumer buying, with more consumers willing to pay extra for environmentally friendly products, reinforces the need for companies to increase their commitments to responsible business practices,” said Long.
“Companies across industries have started to lead with purpose, including embracing the circular economy as a greater opportunity to drive growth and competitive agility,” she added.
While sustainability is a rising factor in buying decisions, it still is not the No 1 consideration among consumers, according to the survey. Quality led with 89%, followed by price at 84%. Health and safety came in at 49%, and environmental impact was at 37%.
The chemical industry will play a key role in developing sustainable products, since it will make the materials used to make the goods.
Already, companies are making grades of polyethylene (PE) that can be used in the several layers that make up food packaging, making it easier to recycle these materials.
They are also developing process technologies that can allow plastic to be chemically recycled and broken down into monomers.
The take-back option as a solution to single-use plastics is also worth exploring, according to the survey.
In the survey, over 40% of respondents already participate in take-back programs and 95% said they would be willing to participate.
“The main incentive would be to make this easier for consumers – such as being able to leave their containers and having them picked up and refilled – or providing discounts for products based on participation,” said Long.
“No one wants to be wasteful, especially knowing the waste will wind up in a landfill. Consumers are becoming more aware and this is highly encouraging – they are willing to vote with their wallet and participate in programs,” she added.
In the broader context of recyclability, companies that produce food packaging should start from the initial design phase with the goal of making it as circular as possible, such as avoiding the use of multi-layers and certain additives.
Then these companies can look to see if they can take the package back into its system “as close to the original as possible”, said Long.
“If it’s a high value package, can I feed it into a loop type of model, where it’s used multiple times?”
This can be done by brand companies or chemical companies or both, but it can be beneficial for chemical companies to be involved or even lead.
Chemical companies – in the case of US' Eastman Chemical with its cellulosic yarn branded Naia – can even design “textiles that can be used in fast fashion that are beautiful, high performing and sustainable products”, said Long.
“Demand for sustainable products across packaging, textiles, flavours and fragrances, food ingredients, automotive, toys and other applications are greater than chemical companies expect,” said Long.
“It is really up to chemical companies to do it – they literally are the secret ingredient,” she added.
However, consumers in the survey ranked chemical companies the lowest for the reliability of their information about the environmental impacts of their products, the survey said.
The majority - 72% - said they were not very confident or not confident at all in what the chemical industry says about the environmental effect of its materials.
Plastics were perceived as the least environmentally friendly type of packaging by 77% of the consumers. Paper products were ranked the highest by 55%.
Chemical companies are held in such low regard partly because of the nature of their business.
For the most part, chemical companies sell their products to other businesses and, as a result, they have seen little need to interact and communicate with ultimate consumers, said Long.
The ACC annual meeting runs on 3-5 June.
Interview article by Joseph Chang and Al Greenwood