PARIS – The importance of sustainability to consumers has “massively increased in importance even among lower incomes,” said Konstantinos Apostolatos, managing director and senior partner for The Boston Consulting Group. The accelerated interest is going to change how companies communicate with consumers and collaborate with their customers and suppliers.

“It (sustainability) was already a big topic in the World Economic Forum, the last physical one, but it has now become much more important,” Mr. Apostolatos said during a June 21 consumer trends panel presented at the virtual Consumer Goods Forum. “In fact, our global data shows that consumers across the board have sustainability as a top three choice criteria now, which was not the case a few years back.

“Surprising to me is people in lower incomes, despite the affordability issue, consider it important. Dealing with affordability while at the same time dealing with sustainability is a critical thing we need to fix.”

Francois Faelli, global leader of Bain & Company’s consumer products practice, said companies need to apply nuance when thinking about strategies to approach sustainability.

“(During the pandemic) consumers were confronted with their waste for the first time — 100% of their waste,” he said. “And now consumers are buying sustainable products like never before but there is still a gap. When you ask (consumers) what they buy against they say it's price, quality and convenience. They don't say sustainability.”

That gap may be closing, said Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra, a consultancy focused on sustainability.

“Searches for how to live a sustainable life increased 4,550% (on Google) during the pandemic,” she said. “The question is who is going to give them that? I’m finding my clients aren’t pivoting fast enough to give them that need. There is a huge need for more sustainable, more ethical, healthier products.”

Using social listening, Futerra has analyzed 107 million online conversations around food and found sustainability is a key topic.

“One example is interest in a ‘planetary diet,’” Ms. Townsend said. “A huge increase in conversations around a planetary diet and who made my food has increased even more.”

Interest in the supply chain, including where food is processed and who did the processing is starting to affect consumer perceptions.

“This is what is really interesting to me,” Ms. Townsend said. “This idea that people think if something is local or seasonal it is healthier; people assuming if they know where the product is made and connected to the supply chain, then it’s healthier.”

Large companies need to consider making their supply chains more sustainable even if it may lead to raising prices, Mr. Apostolatos said.

“I work with the World Economic Forum, and we looked at the green premium, making the supply chain sustainable,” he said. “Actually, the green premium for making the supply chain carbon neutral is relatively small.

“The questions is why don’t we do it, because it should be quite easy? And the reason it’s not happening is large corporations are not used to working with their buyers, logistics partners, retailers to address the problem together. I think we will see a new model of collaboration where you will have to really establish transparency across the chain, otherwise we will never solve the problem by dealing with it individually as a company.”

Ms. Townsend echoed Mr. Apostolatos point and added that how companies and consumers view a sustainable supply chain are different.

“Often, as companies, we separate these issues out and you can have entire departments dedicated to them,” she said. “But it’s not the way the consumer is seeing it.”

Additionally, she said companies need to work on not just being more sustainable, but also communicating such efforts.

“There is also an equivalent huge need for information, for storytelling and transparency,” she said. “We talk about innovation in product. We need innovation in information as well.”