Download a PDF of Growing into Sustainability.

NEW YORK—There is no avoiding the fact that concern for the environment impacts every aspect of our daily lives. From decisions on how people commute to work, to what they eat, to who they vote for and, of course, how they shop—there is a sustainable choice in every decision we make. Retail is often at the forefront of these conversations about sustainability and everyday life, and for many people, changing the things they buy and the frequency with which they buy them is an easy first step toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

Taking a more sustainable approach to shopping and retail can mean different things for everyone. For consumers, it can mean paying closer attention to the realities behind the making of their favorite products. For retailers, it can mean paying closer attention to what they stock and, crucially, how they communicate the sustainable stories behind the brands they stock to customers. For brands and creators, it can mean redoubling sustainable efforts, breaking new ground and truly committing to an eco-friendly business model.

When it comes to consumers, the data is pretty clear—people want to buy sustainably more than ever before. A September 2023 report from Harvard Business Review (HBR) stated, “For most consumers, sustainability has been considered a ‘nice-to-have’ in the brands they buy, but it’s rarely been table stakes. That’s about to change. Our research suggests we’re on the brink of a major shift in consumption patterns, where truly sustainable brands—those that make good on their promises to people and the planet—will seize the advantage from brands that make flimsy claims or that have not invested sufficiently in sustainability.”

The core of HBR’s research is that consumers value trust, and a commitment to sustainability from a brand drives trust. Of the more than 350,000 U.S. consumers aged 18 to 98 that HBR surveyed, it was Gen Z and Millennials who truly valued this commitment. HBR reported, “When Gen Z and Millennial customers believe a brand cares about its impact on people and the planet, they are 27 percent more likely to purchase it than older generations are—a clear measure of sustainability’s power to drive buying decisions in this group.”

Of course, these younger generations will soon have more purchasing power in the U.S. as wealth transfers (HBR reported, “Forecasting experts calculate that the purchasing power of Millennials and Gen Z will surpass that of Boomers around the year 2030.”), so establishing these trustworthy relationships with these two generations now, as their purchasing power grows, is critical for a brand’s survival.

Research from the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) and Edelman, as reported by Forbes, found similar results: “Adding claims around sustainability significantly boosted the product’s appeal and audience size—an increase of anywhere from 25 percent to 33 percent.” The most effective claims were ones that “pertained to benefiting consumers’ daily lives,” as opposed to nebulous claims about helping the planet.

Most effective were claims about basic human needs, Forbes reported—and these resonated with Gen Z above all. “Gen Z consumers were more likely to respond to more-abstract messages—perhaps because the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change on their lives is a more personal matter for them… They also were more likely to consider a brand’s environmental record when making purchasing decisions than other generations.”

It’s not just Gen Z, though, who cares about the future of the planet. November 2023 research from Bain & Company  found that “72 percent of Gen Z consumers and 68 percent of Boomers globally are very or extremely concerned about the environment.” Perhaps most surprisingly, the researchers also found that this isn’t completely divided along party lines.

“In the U.S., 96 percent of consumers agree that the climate is changing. Among those concerned about the environment in the U.S., 85 percent of self-described liberal voters are very or extremely concerned about climate change, compared with 39 percent of conservative voters. Yet conservatives say they worry more about specific issues such as water, biodiversity loss and air pollution.”

In the U.K., Deloitte research also found an increased interest in sustainable purchasing, in part driven by the rising cost of living. Deloitte reported, “In a sign that the cost of living crisis is having an impact, behaviors with the largest increase in adoption this year include buying more second-hand items, paying more for longer-lasting products, repairing more and using the car less.” This has a direct impact on the eyewear industry: understanding what frames are made to last, and are able to be repaired, could be a major decision-making factor for consumers.

With that in mind, pricing and affordability remain important. In November 2023, Bain & Company published its findings after speaking to thousands of company executives about sustainability; the research found that “consumers in the U.S. are willing to pay an average premium of 11 percent for products with a minimized environmental impact. However, 28 percent is the average premium for products marketed as sustainable in the U.S.” Consumers are willing to pay more when they feel a product is responsible—but most still have monetary concerns and a hard cutoff when it comes to what they’ll spend.

It’s possible that this gap could be bridged with better communication. Bain & Company reported, “Worldwide, 48 percent of consumers consider how products are used when thinking about sustainability. These consumers are more concerned about how a product can be reused, its durability and how it will minimize waste. In contrast, most companies sell sustainable goods based on factors such as how they are made, their natural ingredients and the farming practices deployed. These factors cause many consumers to conflate ‘sustainable’ with ‘premium.’”

Because of this, the research found that “nearly half of all developed-market consumers believe that living sustainably is too expensive.” For retailers, this seems to come in part from a communication breakdown, or a misunderstanding of what consumers are looking for. It’s possible that with better in-store and POS talking-points and communication, the conversation around sustainability in eyewear and eyecare can become much more productive.

The road to sustainability is built on small steps here and there, and there is truly no such thing as perfection. But the data and real-world situations make it clear that it’s a road we all must travel together. With communication, collaboration and community, a more sustainable industry is not just possible but inevitable.