For over a decade, Forrester has been measuring the drivers and implications of increasingly empowered consumers — those shoppers who eagerly experiment with new brands and products, use sophisticated personal technology, expect digital seamlessness, shrewdly navigate online information, and are motivated by high levels of self-efficacy. Over the years, we’ve observed empowered consumers reach for — and eventually demand — newer, faster, more complex technology options. As a result, companies worked hard to woo from new talent pools, establish dedicated digital teams, and infuse a culture of digital transformation throughout the business in the scramble to keep up. Now, our consumer data analysis signals another change in empowered consumers’ behavior that will precipitate the next business transformation: committing to environmental sustainability.

While consumer conversations about the climate have ebbed and flowed for decades, 2020 marked a turning point. The combination of escalating climate hazards and a newfound consumer consciousness sparked unprecedented urgency and action around the climate crisis. Against a backdrop of dire natural disasters from destructive wildfires in California to record-breaking floods in the Midwest that in total cost the US $95 billion of damage — double that of 2019 — and under stay-at-home orders, consumers experienced the direct link between the environment and personal well-being firsthand.

We enter 2021 with knowledge that:

  • Overall, consumers are hyperaware of the condition of the environment. Our data reveals that a third of US online adults say they spend more time thinking about the climate than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media and video streams, like #climateemergency, curate a continuous cycle of content that exposes consumers to the ravaging impacts of climate change and frame the state of the environment as a personal and emotional issue.
  • More consumers are motivated to take action on environmental sustainability. In direct response to the events of 2020, 36% of US online adults are looking for ways to contribute to local communities, and 31% spend more time thinking about global challenges like poverty or hunger. This mindset sparked bursts of consumer participation in efforts such as Fridays For Future climate action protests and primes 32% of US consumers to prioritize companies that are actively reducing their impact on the environment.
  • Highly empowered consumers seek and champion brands that commit to sustainability. A growing consciousness about the environment paired with an intensifying desire to participate in community causes is rapidly filtering into empowered consumers’ buying decisions. As expert researchers and device users, empowered shoppers scout information from company values to manufacturing and supply chain practices in search of sustainable options: 68% of highly empowered consumers plan to step up their efforts to identify brands that reduce environmental impact, 61% seek out energy-efficient labels when making purchases, and 47% regularly buy organic products.

The radical change in work and lifestyle conditions will continue to catalyze new demands, expectations, and behaviors in 2021 and well into the decade. As consumers’ sensitivity to the environment exerts a stronger influence on purchase decisions across multiple categories of buying, your sustainability strategy becomes critical not only to recovering from the pandemic but also to developing resilience for the long term. Preparing for the road ahead starts with measuring how urgently your customers look for, scrutinize, and pay for brands that go green. In our latest report, Sal Schiano and I offer a framework that gauges precisely this while also detailing what the shift in consumers’ environmental consciousness will mean for businesses in the coming years.

Forrester clients can access the full report here, and as always, we invite your questions and discussions via Forrester inquiry.