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How The Coronavirus Is Reversing Sustainability Trends, And What This Means For The Future Of Sustainable Goods

Winston Ibrahim

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In 2018, consumers in the United States spent $128.5 billion on sustainable consumer goods.

According to Nielsen, sales in the sustainable goods sector have risen 3.5% per year since 2014, with projections of the market size reaching $150 billion by 2021—at least, until the coronavirus pandemic began.

Right now, what we’re seeing is a reversing of this trend. Starbucks is temporarily banning reusable cups and mugs. Grocery stores are banning reusable bags. Cities and municipalities have gone so far as to reverse their bans on products that were otherwise considered harmful to the environment (single-use products) to minimize the contamination and transfer of the coronavirus.

Companies manufacturing sustainable goods are going to struggle in the short term.

For example, why buy a fancier, eco-friendly lunchbox made out of stainless steel to store your coffee grounds when you can buy a glass jar on Amazon for a dollar or two? Why buy a nice burlap grocery bag priced 100x the cost of a paper bag at the grocery store? In the current environment, the math doesn’t add up—and companies that had been riding the sustainability trend before the coronavirus are going to have a tough time convincing customers to keep spending money on these types of items.

As a result, there will be defaults in this space, and businesses going under.

Retailers aren’t going to want to allocate space to these sustainable, long shelf-life products. E-commerce companies are going to have a hard time convincing customers who aren’t leaving their homes to buy items intended for repeat use outside of the home. Supply chain partners and manufacturers are going to experience a decline in order volume. And as a result, this niche is going to fall to a very small set of hardcore users, which means businesses will exhaust this demographic relatively quickly. 

In order to solve for this, companies in this sector are going to need to diversify their product lines a bit in order to target customers who still want a “sustainable” product but want to spend a little less money and are looking for more functionality. 

For example, even though we have a strong sustainability focus with our water bottles and pitchers through Hydros, we have enough functional options to be both a luxury item in good times and a cost-effective, functional item in bad times. In fact, we thought our sales were going to slow during the coronavirus, and we’re actually almost completely sold out of our inventory on hand. Turns out, people who had previously spent money on plastic water bottles when they were out and about, or relied on office water stations for purified water, are now looking for at-home solutions.

However, the sustainability sector is too strong not to rebound back.

The question is, how long will it take?

According to Harvard Business Review, 50% of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products. In addition, “Products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not. In more than 90% of the CPG categories, sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts.”

There is too much of a groundswell toward sustainability in commerce, particularly among younger demographics who are increasingly driving consumption patterns. As the founder of a company within this space, I can tell you that over the past two months the number one query we receive on social media is, “When will you have a glass version of this product?” Glass pitchers and bottles would be even more reusable, better for the environment, etc. This speaks volumes about what customers are looking to spend their money on.

While the coronavirus is challenging industries all over the world, this is a temporary ring to sustainability in terms of the fall-off demand around reusables. My personal belief is that sustainable goods will come back better and stronger than ever.

However, the path to recovery will require shifts to take place within the marketplace. And brands that were not prepared to last through these challenging times will most likely go under before this market regains its footing.

I am the founder and CEO of Hydros, an innovative water filtration startup with proprietary technology that works at five times the speed of standard home filtration systems. We strive to create beautiful, convenient, and competitively priced portable and home filtration products to reduce the consumption of single-use disposable plastic bottles.

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