Nearly three-quarters of consumers expect online retailers and brands to use recyclable packaging


A new ‘conscious consumer’, more aware of the environmental impact of their purchases, has emerged from the coronavirus lockdown, a new research report by PFS and LiveArea, has found.

For many consumers, the temporary closure of physical shops has provided the opportunity to reassess and re-evaluate their shopping habits. The report, titled ‘Selling Sustainability: Adapting to the New Conscious Consumer’, found that consumer attention in the UK and Ireland has turned to the sustainability of the buying cycle and the environmental impact associated with their changing shopping habits.

Over a third (37%) of UK and Irish shoppers now say that they are more conscious of the environmental impact their online shopping habits have, than before the pandemic. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of consumers expect online retailers and brands to use recyclable packaging (73%) or minimise their use of packaging (74%).

Supporting sustainability

While the world has been locked down, we have seen many consumers paying more attention to the sustainability of the products they purchase every day, along with the process retailers go through prior to their successful delivery. As a result, only 37% of consumers are satisfied with the communication from online retailers or brands on the environmental impact of the groceries and household product items they have bought.

Where and how a product is sourced is also becoming more important in the purchasing process. Over a third (35%) of consumers now say that when making a purchase a product must be naturally sourced, locally sourced or sustainable. Over half (56%) of respondents also said they prefer to buy products that can be delivered from within their own country.

43% of consumers state their preferred shopping methods as being in-store purchase, and buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS).These preferences are largely due to the perceived lower environmental impact when compared to ordering goods online which are then sent out for delivery.

Tackling the issue of over-purchasing

Although many Millennials admit to still over-purchasing and returning items (30% compared to 16% of all consumers), the COVID-19 pandemic has altered consumer habits, with over a third (37%) of all shoppers having stopped over-purchasing as a result. 

Due to the pandemic, one in three (30%) shoppers are also returning fewer items than they used to over environmental concerns. This change in habits could have a big impact on how online retailers and brands approach promotions in the future. Consumers could be less likely to have a spending splurge or react in the same way to marketing emails and targeted offers, post-pandemic, and instead be more realistic about what they need to buy. 

Return to sender?

Despite buying habits changing and online retailers and brands deploying innovative ways of using technology to replicate in-store shopping experiences, there is still a lack of awareness among consumers about what happens to returned items. In fact, only 26% of consumers report that they are aware of what actually happens to products when they return them to online retailers and brands.

Figures from Optoro¹ estimate that 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through such returns each year, whilst contributing 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Despite this, the new research found 42% of consumers believe that the products they return are reused or recycled, with only one in five (22%) aware that goods are often thrown away or destroyed. Highlighting a need for change, 71% of consumers said they would change their online shopping habits if online retailers and brands communicated that returns go to landfill.

Maintaining positive changes

When it comes to checking the sustainability of products, it seems consumers are actively seeking online retailers and brands who can stand by their sustainable credentials. The survey findings reveal that half of consumers in France always check an item’s credentials, compared to over a third (38%) of those in the UK and Republic of Ireland. This suggests that changes in shopping habits, which might have been forced upon them due to something beyond their control, have been a wake-up call for individuals and brands alike.

Almost three-quarters (72%) of consumers said they plan to continue with their changed shopping habits following the pandemic, whilst 40% of consumers feel that online retailers and brands should continue with reduced carbon footprint initiatives which include changes to product delivery and sourcing.

Achieving and exceeding expectations

Christophe Pecoraro, Managing Director of PFS Europe, comments: “For retailers, a change in behaviour and beliefs means they must work even harder to gain and maintain loyalty from consumers by positioning themselves as a brand that understands the needs and desires of its customers throughout the entire buying journey. Getting the balance right is important, but so too is authenticity. Consumers can see through empty gestures – substance is essential. Consumers are now more carefully considering what, where and how they buy items. The brands that meet these needs will be best positioned to thrive in the future.”

Benoit Soucaret, Creative Director at LiveArea EMEA, comments: “Our research clearly highlights the immediate need for brands to be more environmentally responsible. The COVID-19 pandemic has made consumers reassess what’s important to them and their own personal impact on the planet. Now more than ever these conscious consumers expect brands to deliver on sustainability and are looking for them to communicate how they are doing this.”


PFS and LiveArea commissioned research agency, Arlington Research, to survey 2,500 consumers about their current shopping habits, environmental and ethical expectations from online retailers and brands, and how their buying behaviour has changed during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Nationally representative interviews were carried out with adults aged 18 and over, with nationally representative quotas set on gender, age and region at a country-wide level. Respondents came from the UK (1,500 respondents), Republic of Ireland (500 respondents) and France (500 respondents). Fieldwork took place between 28 May and 4 June, 2020.


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