5 Insights Every Brand Should Know about the Sustainable Shopper, from Nielsen’s Latest Sales Data

Core Impact Blog

I recently attended Nielsen’s webinar covering the 2018 sales data on sustainable products. In a space where data is often claimed, it can be hard to know whether consumers actually behave the way they intend when it comes to “doing good.” In this case, it’s real sales data, so we can gather insights from the way consumers actually behaved. 

Here are my top 5 takeaways:

 1)     Sustainability benefits are mainstream and outperform conventional products by A LOT

While we may qualitatively sense that there are increasing volumes of products with sustainability attributes, it can be hard to tell if these products outperform those without. The Nielsen shopper data shows that products with “sustainability” claims, along with those that have no artificial ingredients and clean label, show significant sales increases vs. year ago compared with conventional products. Specifically, we see 5.8% growth for those sustainability benefits compared with 0.4% of conventional products. That’s ~14X higher growth rate.  

Sustainability Product Sale Outpace Total Market

If we look at multi-year trends since 2014, sustainable product sales have grown by nearly 20%. The compound average growth rate (CAGR) of these products is four points higher larger than conventional products (3.5% vs -1.0% comparatively) (1). 

One might dismiss this growth rate by assuming it was on a tiny base, which might make it easier to deliver bigger growth, however, I found the following slide on Nielsen’s website showing that sustainable products now make up over 22% of store sales, according to 2017 data. That’s not a tiny base. Sustainability has arrived, and the growth rate is real. 

Sustainable Products Share of US Sales

2)     There is no 1-size-fits-all sustainability benefit

The breadth and diversity of sustainability benefits are increasing. Nielsen categorized the claims across 6 sectors: social responsibility, sustainable farming, sustainable resource management, sustainable seafood, sustainable packaging, and animal welfare. These categories do not even include the charitable giving space of financial donations generated by product sales. 

While some benefits are seeing significant sales growth, notably “sustainable fishing” (+27%), “free range” (+16%), and “B-Corp” (+15%), others are seeing declines, such as “less packaging” (-7%) and “farm raised” (-3%).

 While consumers previously may have viewed the space as a monolithic “better for the planet” benefit, consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about the specific attributes they want to purchase in their products. The mere existence of a sustainability claim does not guarantee the average sales trends, so one has to diver deeper on specific benefits consumers desire within the broad sustainability space.   

These sustainability benefits vary in how much they deliver personal benefits for the consumer, environmental benefits and social benefits. When a company can deliver both personal and "better for the world," there is a sweet spot of social impact and business opportunity.

Ingredient and Transparency Product Sales Trends

3)     Consider category purchase drivers when identifying sustainability benefits

Even within specific sustainability attributes, brands have to evaluate category specific trends and purchase drivers for their current and future product offerings. While certain sustainability topics might dominate the current media, such as reduction of single use plastics, these are not necessarily the best ones to pursue for your brand. First, because those issues might not be a brand's biggest environmental impact, and secondly, because benefits have vastly different rates of sales growth across categories.

In grocery we see significant growth among organic, and clean label products, whereas in beauty and personal care there is a greater emphasis on paraben-free claims. 

Beauty Care Sustainability Claims

The slide below further demonstrates the variation a single attribute can deliver across a variety of categories. We see the sales growth of products with “fair trade” compared with total category sales across 4 categories. In Nutrition Bars, Coconut Water, and Supplements, “fair trade” significantly outperforms the category, whereas in Ice Cream, “fair trade” under-performs the category.

 Product benefits, combined with the perception of supply chains, environmental impact, health, and product safety, and all affect how consumers perceive the value of different sustainability benefits across categories.

Category Sustainability Growth

 4)     Ingredient related claims see some of the highest high growth rates, not just among food and beverage categories

Some of the highest growth rates among sustainability products are for ingredient related claims. A core reason ingredients are becoming more important as primary product benefit is the consumer link to both health and product safety.  A recent study showed that recalls of hazardous meat and poultry were up 83% since 2013, providing legitimacy to concerns around product safety.

While the importance of ingredients might seem intuitive for products that are consumed, the trend is just as notable in many cases for personal care and beauty products. In slide 22 shown above, we see that ~60% of cosmetics and facial skin care are “paraben-free,” which means the lack of these ingredients is essentially becoming price of entry in those categories. 

We also see in vitamins, minerals, and supplements as well as in personal care that show ingredient related growth rates from ~8-25% compared with conventional products.

Growth of Ingredient Transparency claims


5)     The Sustainable shopper is urban, affluent, well-educated and often has young children

This data has remained relatively consistent for some time, and is largely driven by the Millennial generation. While it may be that these consumers have historically had more access to products with sustainability benefits on the coasts, the trend seems to be moving inward, according to commentary in the webinar, with cities like Chicago and Cincinnati showing increasing consumption of these products. 

Sustainable Shopper

For companies, one of the benefits about this consumer is that they are more affluent, which means that brands can be confident in being able to charge a premium for sustainability benefits if they are perceived as relevant for the category.   Sustainability attributes should be a primary consideration as brands establish their innovation pipeline for the next 3-5 years. 


Even though I’m a big fan of sales data, I couldn’t resist including a couple of relevant insights from the claimed data.

6) Link Sustainability claims to premium factors (i.e. attributes that consumers will pay more for)

One of the challenges with making sustainability claims, is that it actually increases the cost of goods to deliver those products. It may be that sustainably-sourced ingredients are more expensive, or the manufacturing process is more complex or runs smaller volumes, or perhaps a 3rd party certification incurs additional costs. 

An essential business strategy to offset these costs is to increase prices, but if consumers are unwilling to pay for higher prices, then delivering sustainable products may not be financially viable. That’s why brands need to deliver sustainability benefits that are associated with factors that consumers will pay higher prices for.

Consistent with most product attribute data, the two biggest premium factors are Quality/Safety and Superior Function or Performance (49% and 46%, respectively, of consumers were willing to pay more for these benefits. Frankly, I’m surprised we’re not seeing even higher numbers than that.) Increasingly consumers are associating sustainability attributes like organic, or antibiotic-free with these premium factors.

Premium Sustainability Benefits

7) The US lags developing countries when it comes to demand for corporate environmental practices

In a list of the top 11 countries where consumers say it’s important for companies to improve the environment, the US don’t make the list. Not by a long shot. All 11 are developing countries, with responses ranging from 92-97%. The US is at 68% (this data point is pulled from a separate Nielsen deck). One of the primary reasons cited for this variation is the visibility of negative environmental impacts due to lack of environmental regulation, such as no formal waste management processes, and higher water and air pollution.

For global companies that develop their innovation in the US and export it to other countries, they may be missing an opportunity to capitalize on the even greater relevance of sustainability in developing countries. 

Country Ranking for Sustainability Preferences

It’s exciting to see that products with sustainable benefits continue to outperform conventional products. The brands that understand consumers preferences by category, and innovate to understand the link between environmental, social and personal benefits, have an opportunity to be differentiated in the marketplace. With over 22% of products now considered to have some kind of “sustainability” benefit, it’s become a crowded marketplace, and that demand will continue to increase.

Consumers are becoming more informed and more savvy about the specific benefits they want by category. The time is now to innovate for the sustainable consumer, because soon, we will just call her the consumer. 


(1) - https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/was-2018-the-year-of-the-influential-sustainable-consumer.html