This is the day many of us will access the Christmas aftermath, focusing our efforts on packing away the decorations for next year and carting the tree to a recycling facility.
In the midst of that labour, at least three large bags of wrapping paper and gift boxes will also join the clean out — another signpost to the annual consumer spree in which we all play our part.
Having overheard the phrase “ethical consumerism” on a number of occasions in recent weeks, it’s clear that sustainability and green activism has now reached the mainstream, increasingly informing purchases from the weekly shop to energy consumption and electric cars.
In a year where Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, and, more recently, the fires in Australia forced the world’s focus upon climate change, we are clearly entering a decade destined to witness seismic changes in the way we work and live.
Even the rampant consumerism of Christmas has found itself in the critical spotlight like never before.
Ireland was expected to generate 75,000 tonnes of packaging waste this Christmas, despite a majority of consumers indicating that the environment would influence how they shop.
According to a Repak study, 79% were conscious of climate change and the need to reduce packaging waste, but 44% did not know that not all wrapping paper can be recycled. Up to three-quarters intended to shop online this Christmas, with items purchased from international retailers resulting in over 11,700 tonnes of packaging waste, the equivalent generated by a town the size of Killarney.
Repak forecasts that packaging waste generated from international online sales could surpass 100,000 tonnes by 2032, placing a significant financial burden on the Irish waste industry.
While Irish consumers have made vast improvements to their recycling and eco-conscious habits over the last two decades, the graph needs to raise its recycling levels even further to meet EU recycling targets in the coming years.
“Currently, overseas online retailers are free to place large quantities of waste packaging on the Irish market and bear no responsibility for the impact their business has on our recycling system and wider environment,” said Tony O’Sullivan, Repak’s director of policy and strategy.
“They don’t pay a cent towards our recycling costs and yet the volume of waste packaging they place on the market has nearly doubled in the last three years. This cannot continue.”
According to the 2019 PwC Irish Retail and Consumer Report, companies need to be mindful of the growing sustainable consciousness of their customers and the need to provide a range of products that are ethically sourced, organic and local in nature.
This consciousness will continue to grow with the greater awareness of climate change, resource depletion and the implementation of carbon taxes and levies. Sustainability benefits not only the environment and business, but also enables a relationship based on trust to be built with consumers. As much as 32% of the PwC survey respondents said they choose sustainable products to help protect the environment, while 49% looked for products with environmentally-friendly packaging.
In addition, two-thirds of Irishconsumers indicated their willingness to pay for locally and sustainablyproduced items. The traditional linear model of “take, make and throw away” is being superseded by the circular economy model of “reduce, reuse and recycle”.
The circular economy promotes a low-carbon, sustainable society, andin turn, a green, organic and local lifestyle.
A majority of Irish consumers factor ethics in their spending habits, according to a 2019 survey by accounting and advisory firm RSM, conducted across the Republic, the North, and the UK.
As much as 88% of Irish consumers factor ethics in their spending, the highest of the three areas, bolstered by 50% indicating they would pay a premium for ethically produced goods and services.
Across the Irish Sea, British consumers are increasingly eating with a conscience as research from Mintel shows that over the last five years, sales of ethical food and drink have shot up by 43% from €6.7bn in 2013.
The sector’s ongoing popularity is set to continue, as sales of ethically certified food and drink are projected to rise by 17% to reach €11.2bn by 2023.
The recent climate change protests have pushed sustainability high up on the news agenda, according to Alice Baker, Mintel research analyst.
“The food and drink industry is under growing pressure to take action on issues such as carbon emissions, plastic pollution and food waste,” she said.
However, any actions can only beeffective in tackling these issues if companies are able to persuade shoppers to buy sustainably and ethically certified products on a regular basis.
Consumers’ doubts over whether their buying choices make a difference to the environment present a significant barrier, likely causing apathy and inertia. Companies must, therefore, make the benefits of buying ethical food/drink to the environment, and to wider society as a result, more tangible to shoppers.
Going forward, consumers will continue to play a pivotal role in the growth of markets for more sustainable products and businesses, according to Jo Whitfield, Co-op Food chief executive.
“There is an expectation that these markets will continue to grow as we enter an unprecedented time of awareness on the challenges people and the planet face,” she said.
“If we want to have any chance ofaddressing the challenges that we face, be it of climate pollution or inequality, then it’s not going to just be about market growth going forward but about systemic change to our homes, our travel, diets, leisure and clothing,” she said.