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Sustainability at a turning point


COVID-19 has changed the way consumers think about shopping, investing, employment, and travel.

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What's worth more—the present or the future?

This paradoxical question is top of mind for consumers, businesses, and governments in the era of climate change.

As extreme environmental events become ever-more common, people are carefully weighing short-term expectations, such as convenience and cost-efficiency, against the existential need to preserve the planet for future generations.

In January 2020, the World Economic Forum reported that nearly half of European citizens—and 3 in 4 Chinese citizens—consider climate change a major threat to society. And in the US, Pew Research found that public concern for environmental protection reached a new precipice in February 2020: it rivaled the economy as the US public’s top policy priority for the first time in Pew’s survey history, coming in second by just 3 percentage points.

93% of global consumers say COVID-19 influenced their views on sustainability.

That was before the pandemic. The unprecedented disruption COVID-19 caused may have pushed consumers past a tipping point. To understand how the events of the last year impacted public perception of sustainability and social responsibility, the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) surveyed more than 14,000 adults from 9 countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom, and United States) in March.

Our research revealed that the pandemic significantly shifted people’s perspectives on environmental sustainability. A full 93% of global respondents say COVID-19 affected their view.

An era of empathy

Today, more than 2 in 3 global respondents say environmental issues are significantly (very or extremely) important to them personally. Securing fresh water supplies ranked highest on their list of concerns, followed by reducing pollution, protecting rainforests and other ecosystems, and reducing species loss.

A similar portion of people are focused on social responsibility issues, with roughly 3 in 4 consumers saying access to education and ensuring good health and well-being are significantly important to them. 72% said the same of ending poverty and hunger.

This alignment speaks to the reality of achieving social and environmental goals. Good health isn’t possible without clean water. You can’t protect nature without addressing poverty, as well. Our research infers that many consumers have connected those dots.

Putting a premium on sustainability: Today, 22% more consumers say environmental responsibility is very or extremely important when choosing a brand than in 2019.

Putting a premium on sustainability

As personal values take center stage, consumers are voting with cold, hard cash. And acting on sustainable strategies early will put businesses in a better position to earn long-term consumer loyalty and trust.

Download the full report to see how consumer behavior is shifting in regard to shopping, investing, employment, and travel.


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Additional content

Meet the authors

Gillian Orrell

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, Associate Partner, Performance Data & Benchmarking Lead, IBM Europe


Christopher Nowak

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, Business Transformation Consultant, IBM Consulting, IBM


Cristene Gonzalez-Wertz, Electronics and Environment, Energy, and Utilities (EE&U) Research Director, IBM Institute for Business Value

Jane Cheung

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, Global Research Leader, Consumer Industry, IBM Institute for Business Value

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Originally published 21 April 2021