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From materials to production processes

Sustainable purchasing decisions: What customers are really looking for

Sustainability is a topic that has evolved from a trend to a must-have in recent years. Customers have developed a new mindset and heightened expectations. It’s no longer just how a piece of furniture looks that matters, but also how it’s made. We explore what customers pay particular attention to when shopping and what criteria manufacturers have to fulfil in order to be perceived as sustainable by a changing clientele.

Shopping bag with a smartphone on it

When customers redecorate their homes, there’s one buying criterion that’s becoming increasingly important: sustainability. (Photo: Pexels)

Three pillars, one climate goal

From climate change, famines, plastic waste in the oceans and the extinction of species, one glance at the news is enough to understand that something has to change. The list of environmental sins is long – and ever-present, for businesses and consumers alike. At a time when customers are becoming increasingly well informed and increasingly critical of companies, it’s important to operate in a genuinely sustainable manner – and to prove it. But what exactly does sustainability mean?

The three-pillar model of sustainability was created back in the 1990s and defines the most important criteria as follows:

1. Environment

Environmental sustainability calls on companies to take a responsible approach to their use of water, energy and finite raw materials. This aspect revolves around taking the environment into account and, of course, protecting resources.

2. Society

In the social sustainability pillar, people are the focus. This refers to decent working conditions, fair wages, the realisation of workers’ interests and opportunities for education and training. Societal interests are also taken into account within social sustainability.

3. Economy

Economic sustainability is primarily concerned with the ways in which companies are able to conduct their business successfully and responsibly. After all, even sustainable companies need to make profits in order to invest them in environmentally friendly processes. The aim is to develop long-term strategies to maximise profit without harming the environment.

Companies are free to decide for themselves what emphasis to give each of the three pillars as they integrate them into their operations. However, the food sector and the clothing industry have both proven that it pays to make internal processes more environmentally friendly.

Other industries are leading the way

In the fashion and food industries in particular, sustainable consumption has become a lucrative business model in recent years. From 2010 to 2020, the market volume of organic food increased by almost Euro 10 million. In fashion, too, sustainability is having a marked impact on buying behaviour, with 78 per cent of shoppers in 2019 already trying to make more sustainable choices when shopping, for example. While many resource-efficient products are already established in supermarkets and clothing stores, the demand for eco-friendly alternatives is steadily increasing in other areas as well – not least in the interior design sector.

Consumers are changing their consumption behaviour and making new demands on manufacturers . According to a survey carried out by Statista in February 2021, more than a third of respondents take a company’s social and environmental sustainability efforts into consideration when choosing to purchase new products – and the trend is growing.

Infographic on the topic of sustainable products and services

The days of blind trust are long gone: consumers are increasingly well informed and demand transparent communication.

The key sustainability criteria for customers

According to a recent study, 51 per cent of those surveyed believe that they are playing an active role in combatting climate change by making informed choices when they shop. The buying public is becoming more discerning and no longer regards consumption purely as a matter of satisfying personal needs, but rather as a way of exercising responsibility, too.

More than half of all respondents said they look for environmentally friendly packaging and products that are not tested on animals. 80 per cent saw manufacturers as having an even greater responsibility to significantly reduce packaging volumes than that of legislators. Just under half of participants said it was important to them that products are traded and produced under fair conditions. This also included the materials used. 40 per cent revealed that they pay particular attention to whether or not a product has been made from renewable raw materials – such as bamboo, recycled packaging waste or even unusual materials like coffee grounds . Regionality was given as an important buying criterion by 45 per cent of respondents. Purchasing products grown or made locally avoids long-distance transport and therefore minimises CO2 emissions.

Besides materials and production, 40 per cent of all respondents said they believed in the importance of conscious consumption – in other words, the conscious decision to purchase less, but to favour high-quality, durable and versatile products that are environmentally friendly. The furniture design brand Thonet has been a true pioneer in this field since the 19th century. With its cantilever chair, Thonet brought a product onto the market that is still considered an interior design classic today – and one that has also come to embody another side of sustainable product design. Interiors trends are constantly changing and demanding supposedly new furniture. The timeless look of classic pieces like Thonet’s chair makes them adaptable to every style, so they can endure for decades.

Infographic: Where do customers find out about sustainability

The infographic shows what customers look for when buying environmentally friendly products and what constitutes sustainable service for them. (Infographic: imm cologne; Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com)

Sustainable communication: don’t just claim it – prove it

Greenwashing is a buzzword that has come up again and again in recent years in conjunction with the topic of sustainability. The term refers to a PR method used to deceptively persuade customers to believe in a company’s eco-friendly, responsible corporate image, akin to a business painting over its activities without really acting sustainably at all.

At a time when consumers are willing to spend more on eco-friendly products, many companies see a moneymaking opportunity. A word of warning: customers are now much more alert and will research environmentally responsible actions in detail – their own and those of companies. According to a recent study by KPMG , 85 per cent of people overall look for information about sustainability, just over half of them on the Internet. So the advice is to do good and talk about it. Those companies that take an environmentally friendly approach should communicate about it openly and transparently.

Almost 70 percent of the study participants would like clearer information about how sustainable certain products really are. Due to the many different sustainability criteria, it is often difficult for consumers to understand how "green" a piece of furniture really is. Seals can provide a remedy . They give consumers an initial orientation and companies thereby provide proof of their sustainable actions.

What many customers don't know: Recognized sustainability seals also provide information about how healthy a product is. Peter Bachmann, head of the Sentinel Haus Institute, has been working on the subject of healthy living for many years. After all, furniture can be bad not only for the environment but also for health due to toxic substances such as glue. Together with Anne Zuber from Schöner Wohnen, Peter Bachmann talks in an interview about how the furniture industry can reconcile healthy living and sustainability and what opportunities this opens up.

Mattress manufacturer Schlaraffia shows how it's done. The company is committed to sustainability and communicates this clearly on its own website. Customers can find out in detail where the material for the mattresses comes from and how they are produced. In addition, all of the company's sustainably manufactured products are marked with their own label. The combination of label and transparent communication are a prime example of a credible and sustainable corporate orientation.

How sustainability can work in the long term

Sustainability has been more than a trend for a long time. It’s the new mindset of a buying public that’s actively concerned about the environment. Company leaders who invest in eco-friendly manufacturing processes today and initiate a change in attitude within their own businesses are positioning themselves at the forefront of both the interior design industry and a sustainable future. Some of the sector’s pioneers have already recognised this and are showing how sustainability can work successfully as a business idea.

Would you like to lead your business into a sustainable and successful future? Then secure your ticket for imm cologne now and experience exciting innovations from the interior design industry live in Cologne from 17 to 23 January 2021.