Eco Anxiety: How is it shaping consumer behaviour?

Consumers are boycotting environmentally damaging products and services in favour of ethical ones as a result of mounting anxiety about climate change.

News headlines around today’s climate emergency certainly make for unsettling reading. Reports of icebergs melting, sea levels rising, drought accelerating, and species dying out are alarming to say the least.

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope… I want you to panic.” Said 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who made headlines herself last year with her school strike campaign for the climate change movement

And it seems that a proportion of people are doing just that.

While ‘eco anxiety’ is yet to be officially recognised as a specific mental health condition, worry and indeed panic over climate change is affecting a growing number of people. Feelings of helplessness, stress and doom when faced with the enormity of the global warming crisis, coupled with guilt at having helped to create it, have given rise to, what Psychology Today refers to as, a “recent psychological disorder”. Sufferers cite panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite and insomnia among symptoms.

For some, the reasonable response to these emotions is activism. For the majority it involves altering their behaviour, and in particular purchasing behaviour. According to the Future of Food Report commissioned by Sainsbury’s and released in May, “driven by unprecedented awareness of animal welfare, health concerns and eco-anxiety, more of us than ever could be putting the planet first when writing our shopping list”. The retailer predicts that plant-based and bio-fortification foods, as well as alternative foods such as jellyfish, will grow in popularity.

Other markets are following suit, reporting sharp increases in sales of ethical products and services. The Ethical Consumer Market Report 2018 reveals that sales of ethical clothing grew 19.9% and second-hand clothing grew 22.5% between 2016 and 2017.

Sales of ethical cosmetics grew 10.8%, with more consumers choosing organic or natural beauty products to avoid environmentally damaging chemicals, also reflecting the current trend for cleaner living.

When it came to products around the home, sales of energy-efficient appliances grew 7.7%, and energy-efficient boilers grew 9.4%.

When asked whether they had boycotted food and drink, transport, or cosmetics and toiletries products or services in the last 12 months, half of 2,017 respondents said that they had. The fact that this figure is up 48% on the previous year gives some indication of the escalating concerns consumers have when it comes to environmental issues.

In an interview with The Guardian this month, Stella McCartney, who goes to considerable lengths to run a sustainable fashion business, noted how a growing number of fashion brands are taking steps to do the same. “These recent changes are consumer driven,” she observed. “I don’t think our industry would be doing that if the the customers weren’t demanding it.”

There are plenty of sound reasons for businesses to get behind a more environmentally conscious approach, as well as align themselves with brands that already have – and as the global warming crisis isn’t going to be resolved any time soon, this is a trend that is only likely to gather momentum.

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