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Sustainability report 2020 Consumers put pressure on retailers to change

Will the online retailers ultimately invest in faster or cheaper

Excessive packaging and final mile deliveries are seen as harmful to the environment in the eyes of consumers across Europe. But not everyone is able to move beyond a booming second-hand market to conscious environmental purchasing.

Consumers in Western Europe are actively looking for ways to reduce their impact on the environment and this extends to how they shop and how they expect retailers to behave.

75% of consumers in the UK and Ireland want retailers to use recycled and recyclable packaging, according to a survey ‘Selling Sustainability: Adapting to the New Conscious Consumer’. In comparison though, it is consumers in France who are more likely to check the credentials of an item before they buy it with half of French consumers saying that they always do so compared to over a third (38%) of those in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

For many consumers, the temporary closure of physical shops due to the Covid-19 pandemic has provided the opportunity to reassess and re-evaluate their shopping habits. More than a third (37%) of consumers in the UK, Ireland and France say they are more conscious of the environmental impact their online shopping habits have, than before the pandemic, suggesting that changes in shopping habits, which might have been forced upon them due to something beyond their control, have been a wake-up call. Almost three-quarters (72%) of these consumers said they plan to continue with their changed shopping habits following the pandemic, whilst 40% feel that online retailers and brands should continue with reduced carbon footprint initiatives including changes to product delivery and sourcing.

Another survey amongst UK consumers found that 43% were likely to switch to a rival retailer that offered a greater range of sustainable delivery options. This rose to 56% amongst 18 to 24-year-olds compared to 40% of those over 45. In addition, 13% said they think about the environmental impact of different delivery options “a lot” when they make their choice, while 40% said they’d be more likely to opt for alternatives to home delivery if a retailer provided information on the emissions for each available option. Fifty per cent of consumers said they would like to only support retailers offering a wide range of sustainable delivery options, rising to 60% amongst 18 to 24-year-olds. The majority of UK consumers also believe that business should have a legal responsibility to the planet and people, alongside maximising profits.


In April, Rob Hattrell, chief executive of online marketplace eBay UK highlighted how UK consumers are searching for more sustainable products, whether it’s reusable straws, water bottles and eco-friendly cleaning products. The trend in more mindful, eco-conscious shopping has also led to a real boom in second-hand sales on the platform.

“So far in 2020, two pre-owned fashion items have been sold on the platform every single second and I expect this upward trend will continue as we all become more aware of our environmental impact. In response, we’ve launched a dedicated page on our platform to profile eBay businesses that sell refurbished and recycled products, to make it easier for shoppers to find the sustainable product they’re after. We have also introduced a 12-month guarantee on many refurbished goods on eBay to give shoppers peace of mind when choosing preowned items,” he said.

He continued: “The trend for more sustainable and recycled products isn’t going away any time soon, and it presents a real opportunity for retailers who haven’t yet considered how they can appeal to more eco-conscious shoppers. Retailers should think carefully about whether the products they sell, and the packaging they are sent in will either entice customers or put them off buying again.” The second-hand, or pre-loved market, is a driver across marketplaces in Europe. With sustainability becoming a consumer driver, especially among the younger Gen X and Gen Z shoppers, there has been an uptick in marketplaces specialising in secondhand sales. Sales across this online second-hand market hit $24bn (€20bn) in 2018 and, by 2028, is likely to be worth $64bn (€54bn). Comparing that to current popular trends, that is nearly €20bn more than the fast fashion industry will be worth.

Much of this is being driven by the second-hand clothes market. Vinted, for example, is the world’s biggest online marketplace for second-hand clothes and was valued at $1.1bn (€1bn) in late 2019. It has 25m members on its platform across 12 countries including France, Germany, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain and the US. This increase in sales of second-hand doesn’t just touch the apparel market and is increasingly being seen in many other verticals, including electrical and furniture. It is also fuelling a rise in a subset of marketplaces that are non-transactional, which act as marketplace platforms that connect buyers and sellers, but which take no part in any transactions.


There is a desire amongst consumers in Western Europe to make more environment-conscious purchases, but there is currently a gap between aspiration and actual behaviour. For some people, it is simply easier to carry on as usual while for others, affordability is an important consideration. These feelings are mirrored around the world with consumers wanting companies to make more affordable products and services that are better for both people and the environment.

A global survey reveals that “most consumers are ready to make healthy and sustainable choices – as long as they are relatively easy and affordable. As we recover from the global pandemic, brands and retailers have a unique opportunity to help forge a better future and help their customers live healthier, more sustainable lives,” said Cristianne Close, global leader, Markets Practice, WWF International, when commenting on the survey.

However, there is disparity between regions with some countries still having a way to go before consumers choose sustainable options every time. “Though this topic has been totally bulldozed by coronavirus, it is definitely a huge issue and Austrian customers know it is important. On the other hand, they still buy from Chinese webshops. If there’s an economic crisis and people have low wages and no money, then the sustainable approach will likely be less important,” says Rainer Will, CEO of Austrian ecommerce association Handelsverband.

There hasn’t been much pressure on retailers from consumers in the Czech Republic either. As Jan Vetyška, executive director, Apek comments: “I think that this is quite a new topic in Czechia for the general public. Before the Covid-19 crisis, we could see the biggest players starting to change their approach to packaging and sustainability. However, there hasn’t been as much pressure from customers compared to some other European countries. We believe that most of the online shops will develop greener solutions in the future at their own pace.”

There are similar views in Poland where “Common consumer thoughts are: if it’s cheap and reliable and I will have it on my desk tomorrow then that’s fine,” according to Pawel Mazurek, marketing lead, The Chamber of Electronic Economy. Poland does have government initiatives in place to help retailers.


A consumer trend that is playing into the business cases for sustainable retail is localism. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a move by consumers towards buying locally-produced food and supporting small businesses in their area. National lockdowns and the closing of retail chains made consumers more aware of the businesses in their immediate vicinity which were easy to access. Many of these businesses in turn grasped the opportunity to deliver locally and make themselves seen in their communities. It wasn’t just the grocery convenience chains that saw growth during the pandemic.

In Germany, the pandemic saw small businesses coming together to launch digital marketplaces with local businesses co-operating to deliver food and other goods to their immediate communities. This is a major change for Germany since the majority of its retailers are SMEs employing just 1 or 2 members of staff. Prior to the pandemic these companies were slow to expand online with ecommerce predominantly offered by retailers in cities rather than the provinces, according to ecommerce association Handlerbund.

This co-operative approach is seen in other online spaces, including Hive, which links online consumers with their local brick and mortar book shop for fulfilment of orders, and Dinked, which does a similar thing for independent record stores. The rise of Green Friday, encouraging people to turn their backs on the online shopping weekend of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, is another way that consumers are sharing what’s important to them with retailers.

This feature first appeared in the 2020 Sustainability Report. Click here to read it in full and to download it.

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