The Sustainability Shift

Understand the transformative shift towards sustainability and how businesses are adapting.
Updated on
September 27, 2023
The Shift Toward Sustainability
Table of Contents

The market is shifting quicker than a melting icecap and consumers are increasingly shopping with the planet in mind. Adapting to sustainability gives your business longevity in a world that is on a high climate change alert.

Today’s shoppers are keen to the guise of greenwashing and have adapted their consumption patterns to purchase with the planet in mind.

“Unlike typical consumer decision-making, which classically focuses on maximizing immediate benefits for the self, sustainable choices involve longer-term benefits to other people and the natural world.”

- Katrine White, UBC Sauder School of Business

As a result of a shift in these patterns, both businesses and society are regularly confronted with environmental disasters, pollution, the daily impact of climate change and recognize the need for a shift to renewable energy sources to help conserve our environment and its limited resources.

A sustainable economy is a circular system based on the three pillars of sustainability: people, profit, and planet. According to “How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviours to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework” a literary review from UBC, “It’s a full circle integration of social, environmental and economic values… [it] reflects the importance of considering how Social influence, Habit formation, Individual self, Feelings and cognition, and Tangibility can be harnessed to encourage more sustainable consumer behaviours. [SHIFT, see what they did there? Even scientists love a good clinger].

Some ways in which the market is shifting:

  • The covid pandemic heightened people’s altruistic awareness and they began to look at consumption in a different light. With time on their side from stay-home orders and lockdowns, people were able to dedicate a chunk of their online shopping scroll to researching the product and the brands they wanted to support.  Purchasing decisions were based on a need as opposed to a want basis. And now that those in the developped world have a bit more freedom and mobility in the pandemic, they are holding true to the values they honed and are more balanced in the way they buy.
  • With staying close to home, consumers were forced to shop local and small and began to see the value. On a grander scale, shopping locally reduces the environmental impact of purchases by cutting down on supply chain and transportation emissions as well as all the resources that are sucked up for mass production.
  • Young consumers –Gen Z and Post Millennials– are very driven by products that align with social and environmental initiatives. This generation has entered the labor force and has the financial independence to influence the market with their environmentally driven values. Studies show that how they present themselves in the world is intrinsically tied to their interests. They want to make worldwide changes through what they purchase and support. This generation, with its huge online presence, wants to feel like they contribute to society and view sustainability as part of that. They are also more likely to directly demand that brands perform more green and ethically.

So how do businesses hitch their wagons? Celine Semaan, the founder of The Slow Factory Foundation, an open education institution for climate positive solutions for regenerative social and environmental justice, gets asked that question a lot. Her answer? “People want a checklist but there is no one solution—there are many. We encourage companies to rethink their values. Just sit down with your team and talk about your company culture. Are you doing what you say you want to do? Close the gap between your intentions and your actions.”

So without further ado, here is another checklist! This is far from an exhaustive list, but here are some things you can do as a business to make a sustainable shift:

  • Make sustainability effortless. Consumers are attracted to quality and value systems. Whether this is through the prioritization of climate positive fabrics and packaging, a transparent and fair value chain, and the inclusive representation of marginalized folks.
  • Aligns with their consumers values. Maybe a move to full organic cotton in your production or B Corp Certified isn't possible for you right away, but how about showcasing the small-scale brands you already carry or the diversity within your team? Maybe a portion of your profits go to charitable organizations. Highlighting where in your brand or product line you are making the shifts gets consumers attention.
  • The Arbor dashboard.  A key to marketing a sustainable product is communicating what effect its use will have on the environment. This is essentially a dashboard for you to monitor the environmental impact of your products and a way for you to market your most environmentally sustainable goods to consumers with real world comparisons such as you saved 20kg of carbon = driving in your car for 5 hours by shopping. Currently in beta-format so stay tuned!
  • Using a purchase to do good. Sustainable development puts the positive in climate positive and leaves consumers feeling warm and fuzzy with their purchasing decisions. Give the consumer something more with each purchase. They want the talking points and the holistic narrative.
  • The message that is being put out matters. Are you an active member of your broader community? Adding something like territory acknowledgement to your online presence is a small but impactful step that shows your connection to your local environment.

“It is important to understand the longstanding history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.

- From The Native Governance Center

In Canada, you can find out the land you are on here, and in the USA here.

  • Making sustainability accessible. Take the affluence out of the equation and make it approachable. This is done through transparency, education, and a humanized approach to sustainability. Redistribute the power to the people and give them credit for their desire to make informed and ethical decisions despite socioeconomic classification.
  • The prioritization of equity and representation within your business is vital in today’s market. For example, if you are a multi-brand, consider taking the 15 Percent Pledge to dedicate 15% of your purchasing power to Black-owned businesses. Fun fact: the creator of the 15 Percent Pledge and designer for Brother Vellies, Aurora James, designed the statement-making “Tax the Rich” dress worn by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the 2021 Met Gala.
  • Figure out the best place for you to start. Maybe it's changing to compostable packaging –Better Packaging is a great option– for all your online sales or encouraging your team to bike to work. Focus on what resonates with your target market and use your social channels to showcase your initiatives. We are pack animals and respond well to the creation of a group dynamic around sustainability and the fostering of good habits.

We reached out to Parker Johnson, host and co-founder of This Is Table Talk, a community, resource hub, and point of connection for self-identifying people of colour. He says that for small businesses, “Sustainability requires us to consider our impact on the planet, and to each other. We can start by asking a simple question, “Who am I accountable to?”. Start by recognizing that small businesses have a reciprocal relationship within the community.

The question can be explored further across these sectors: Impact (environment), Community (representation and inclusion), and the economy (ethical business). A company that understands these interchangeable parts can shift its culture, and improve relationships.”

And when it comes to what business owners and companies can do to hold themselves accountable. “Sustainability asks us to challenge capitalism, and promote intersectionality, in authentic and subtle ways.” Johnson says, “This is done by examining hiring practices, critiquing initiatives, and evaluating value systems without appearing specious.”

Sustainability isn’t just about compostable bags. It’s the value potential of a circular business model in a globalized economy that wholly encompasses diversity, climate initiatives, social justice, and human rights.

Sustainability is a movement that should be invested in to leverage systemic change in an evolving landscape –literally and figuratively . Sustainability is a culture and a powerful driver of change. Sustainability is progressive way for maintaining conditions suitable for positive growth. Sustainability is here to stay.

Thanks for reading!
The Sustainability Shift