Environmental issues survey

Environmental considerations feature large when shoppers make purchases. Consumers are asking why companies aren’t doing more to clean up their act.

Plastic bottle floating in water

With environmental concerns rising rapidly, consumers are asking why companies aren’t doing more to clean up their act.

Heather Armishaw wants to put her money where her mouth is. To reduce their carbon footprint, Heather and husband Richard recently forked out for an electric car.

Environmental considerations also feature large when they make other purchases.

Heather is among a growing number of consumers who rank the worsening state of the environment as a major concern.

Environmental issues feature in the top five spots in our latest survey of consumer concerns. Water quality jumped to first place this year. Eighty percent of consumers named it as their key concern, up from 66% last year.

That rise is coupled with a marked increase in people worried about climate change: 70% identified it as a major concern, up from 61% a year ago.

The new normal

The resurgence in environmental awareness is seeing more consumers like Heather wanting to make better choices.

Fifty-five percent say environmental considerations are very important to them. The majority also factor these considerations into their buying decisions, at least some of the time.

For every one in two consumers, it’s become second nature to search out energy-efficient products. Seven out of 10 routinely think about how long a product will last before they hand over money. Taking reusable bags to the supermarket is the new normal for 44%.

However, there’s mounting dissatisfaction that consumers’ voluntary efforts to do the right thing are being frustrated by business-as-usual. Nearly two-thirds of consumers believe companies aren’t doing enough to reduce their environmental impacts. Just as many think it’s hard to find out which products really are better environmental choices.

Eight out of 10 also think products don’t last as long as they used to. Many of us want to get goods repaired rather than replaced, but product design means this isn’t always possible.

Greenwash – claims of greenness that don’t stack up – is also muddying the waters and increasing scepticism about companies’ eco-branding. Just 15% of consumers feel very confident they can trust green claims.

Survey results

When shopping, do you ...

  Usually or always  Sometimes  Never 
Think about how long a product will last? 71% 25% 4%
Look for energy-efficient products? 50% 41% 8%
Consider the materials the product is made from? 50% 41% 9%
Take reusable shopping bags? 44% 39% 17%
Buy goods produced in New Zealand? 43% 54% 3%
Have something repaired rather than replace it? 41% 53% 6%
Try to avoid products with too much packaging? 34% 49% 17%

Do you agree or disagree that ...

  Strongly agree Agree Neutral Disagree 
Products don't last as long as they used to. 54% 25% 13% 8%
It's hard to find out which products are better environmental choices. 34% 32% 22% 12%
Companies aren't doing enough to reduce their environmental impacts. 34% 29% 21% 16%
Environmental considerations are very important to you. 23% 32% 21% 24%
You trust the environmental claims on products. 15% 33% 25% 26%
You're prepared to pay more for greener products. 15% 26% 22% 37%

GUIDE TO THE TABLES OUR DATA are from a nationally representative survey of 1022 New Zealanders aged 18 years or over, carried out online in December 2017. Figures may add to +/-100% due to rounding.

Local companies lagging behind

Erica Miles, KPMG New Zealand’s director of sustainability services, says increased consumer awareness and investor pressure are requiring businesses to sit up and take notice of the environment. But local companies are dragging the chain.

A recent KPMG survey of the 100 top-earning New Zealand companies found they lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to sustainability reporting.

“With a handful of exceptions, the quality of sustainability reporting by New Zealand businesses is often lacking in balance, objectivity and transparency,” she says. Only 23 of the companies surveyed had their reports independently reviewed.

A 2015 study of 520 Kiwi companies also reported shortcomings in environmental practices. Just 20% of the companies had set targets to reduce carbon emissions and 24% had targets to reduce water consumption.

Study co-author Eva Collins, associate dean of research at Waikato University Management School, says efforts have been incremental and “not the type of change necessary for substantive action on issues like climate change”.

Some companies have gone backwards over the past decade. Lack of government action and the decreasing price of carbon saw some businesses stop measuring their carbon footprint during the study period, while others put their carbon strategies on hold, Ms Collins said.

The study is being repeated this year. Ms Collins predicts the change of government will prompt some companies to up their efforts. But progress will inevitably be influenced by how quickly the government moves to strengthen regulations.

Climate change minister James Shaw has announced a Zero Carbon Bill will be introduced this year, though it may not make it into parliament before the end of October. The bill will establish a Climate Change Commission and set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Higher standards for water quality and waste management are also on the table, but details of what these will require have yet to emerge.

A review of how waste legislation is implemented was announced in January. Associate environment minister Eugenie Sage says mandatory product stewardship schemes, intended to force companies to take responsibility for end-of-life products, are among options being considered. She says proposals will be released for public comment later this year.

How to encourage companies to change

Don’t buy into the hype: Claims such as “environmentally friendly” and “natural” are so broad they’re meaningless. Ignore them. Look for products with independent third-party certification.

Switch KiwiSaver funds: Move your funds to a KiwiSaver provider that offers an ethical investment choice which meets your expectations for environmental performance.

Audit your investments: If you’ve got money in stocks and shares, review where it’s invested. Check out the company’s sustainability report to find out what it’s doing to reduce its impacts.

Bagging plastic

Dire predictions a ban on plastic bags will cause shopping chaos don’t hold weight with most consumers. The majority are content to do without them.

Seventy-one percent say they’re happy to take reusable bags if plastic ones aren’t an option at the checkout. Only 15% think plastic bags should continue to be free.

Many shoppers (83%) are already using reusable shopping bags, at least some of the time. And it’s not the preserve of the young. Eighty-nine percent of shoppers aged 60 or over take reusable shopping bags some or all of the time. That’s compared with 69% of 18- to 24-year-olds.

The 60+ brigade are also more likely to avoid over-packaged goods and look for energy-efficient products.

Your views

Consumers increasingly want to know their efforts to do the right thing for the environment are being matched by business. Here’s what members are saying.

“Companies need to make things that last longer and encourage their staff to be environmentally aware.”
Heather Armishaw

“Product stewardship is needed – companies need to consider every step of the production process and what will happen when products come to the end of their life. It seems a number of companies are still ‘inventing’ more ways to add packaging while others are busy trying to make things better.”
Marianne van der Haas

“Manufacturers should be responsible for disposal of their products. Packaging material and product components need to be fully recyclable and made from sustainable materials.”
Georgina Pahl

“The big issues such as water pollution should be given more emphasis than personal actions.”
Bill Gordon

Member comments

Get access to comment

Graham T.
14 Mar 2020
ecology and consumerism

I'm very pleased that Consumer is getting active on ecological issues. We owe it to our kids to leave them with a liveable world. After a lifetime in science, it's abundantly clear to me that nature does not owe us a living and we have to shift, fast, to a low-carbon, low-impact lifestyle.

Patricia B.
21 Mar 2018

I am wondering if I am subscribing to Consumer or Fair Go
I joined as I needed assistant with which is the best product to purchase that has been tested, now I find myself reading articles about subjects that Fair Go would handle, i.e. Property Managers, which I take exception to. It is so negative and with only a one sided approach, which is typical of todays journalism.

Previous member
22 Mar 2018
Re: Consumer

Hi Patricia,

Thanks for your feedback. While we do test products, a big part of our work is also advocating for consumer rights – we investigate issues and campaign to get laws changed to benefit consumers. We’ve had some great successes this year, including getting banks to scrap their ATM fee for using another bank’s ATM. You can read about more of our recent wins here.

Fonda – Consumer NZ staff