Sustainable living has become somewhat synonymous with luxury, as sustainable food, clothing and other products are often – although not always – more expensive than their major brand counterparts. As consumers are becoming more aware of the products they use and the benefits of shopping sustainably, the industry should be booming but is instead feeling the heat of the cost of living crisis.
The rising cost of living across the UK has been driven in part by increases in the cost of consumer goods, which have been underpinned by high consumer demand and “supply chain bottlenecks.” That, and by skyrocketing domestic gas prices, which increased by 95% from April 2021 to April 2022, alongside domestic electricity prices, which increased by 54% during this same period.
With the cost of living crisis worsening, buying cheap products to cut costs has never been more appealing, and the misconception that shopping sustainably means spending more money is not only impacting sustainable businesses but could have adverse environmental effects as well.
The effects of the rising cost of living on sustainable businesses
Louise Humpington, who owns three zero waste shops in Scotland, started her business right before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and is used to trading through crises. However, in the past six months alone, the rising cost of living has had more of an impact on all aspects of her business than the pandemic did throughout its entirety. According to Humpington, this is partly due to rising electricity prices but also because of the perception that “Indie businesses” are more expensive than big supermarkets, even though this isn’t always the case.
On the surface, Humpington’s prices may look more expensive; you can buy one plastic-free cleaning cloth for 60p or a pack of five for £3, which seems far more costly compared to the pack of 10 all-purpose cloths you can buy for £1 at your local supermarket. Why would you spend £3 when you can get double the quantity for a third of the price?
“If you spend £1 per month on a pack of ten plastic all-purpose cloths, you will spend £12 over the course of a year. They will fall apart very quickly, and 120 plastic cloths will end up in landfill. Instead, consider paying 60p for one cloth this month, saving you 40p on your budget to spend on something else. Then next month do the same. Now you have two cloths that can be reused and washed. Ours are still going a year later, so over the course of the year you have saved £10.80 and also prevented 120 plastic cloths from ending up in landfill,” Humpington said.
This is just one example of how shopping sustainably might look more expensive but can actually save you money when you calculate cost per use or cost per wear while also helping to reduce waste that could otherwise be detrimental to the environment. However, people live busy lives and may not always have the time to work out what is actually cheaper for them, so instead, they are drawn to deals with cheaper price tags, under the impression that this will save them the most money. There is also the issue of the Commander Vimes’ boot theory.
This principle is also evident in supermarket bulk, which make products appear cheaper but give consumers more product than they will actually use, resulting in product and packaging being thrown away. This is exacerbated by the rising cost of living, where people are flocking to low-cost products and bulk deals in an attempt to cut costs and save money. But ultimately, all this does is create a throw away society and cheapens and masks the true value of these products, Humpington said.
“The cost of living crisis has created food security issues in the UK and increased the dependence on low-cost food despite the unethical supply chains that produce these products,” Humpington said.
The sustainable food industry is not the only market to be affected by the rising cost of living. Rebecca Dallimore, who owns the sustainable skincare brand Scintilla, has also seen the cost of living take a toll on her business.
Dallimore runs her business independently, out of a studio at her home. The rising cost of energy is already impacting her, but so are aspects of her supply chain that have also been affected. The rising cost of ingredients and shipping has made it more expensive to create and move products at their current prices, so Dallimore can only afford to make smaller batches of products.
“[Rising costs are] squeezing margins unless I increase product prices. In turn, this could result in losing customers due to affordability – something which Scintilla is built upon,” Dallimore said. “Due to the increased prices at every stage, cash flow isn’t as healthy…and the end result is that, as the owner, I am paid less or not at all. and I work through each day with an underlying uncertainty about the future of my business and a growing pressure to make it successful.”
Over the past few months, Scintilla’s sales have been consistent. However, Dallimore has seen a drop in purchases from returning customers since the sharp increases in living costs as well as a significant decrease in the number of new customers.
“I think people are currently reluctant to spend more on products when there are cheaper alternatives, and are nervous to invest in a new product/brand just in case the spend doesn’t turn out to be worth it,” she said. “As a consumer myself, I know the risk of spending on a new product feels higher when finances are tighter.”
Similarly, Rob Webbon, CEO of the climate-positive sportswear brand Presca, has also seen a lack of customer growth in recent months, as well as prolonged development time for new products due to supply chain issues. However, Webbon’s company has implemented other programs to help prevent environmental waste, which could also help combat the effects of the rising cost of living on his business. Presca offers garment repair services, adaptations to accommodate disabilities and trade-in services to repurpose old items and reduce items getting thrown out and damaging the environment.
“We want to help people keep their clothing in use for as long as possible and do it in the best way we can with the goal of being genuinely climate positive and building an authentic relationship with our customers,” Webbon said.
Repairing or altering an item of clothing could not only save money in the long run but could also extend the lifespan or use of the item by nine months and reduce the carbon footprint of that garment by 30%, according to Layla Sargent who owns The Seam, a garment repair business. Over the past three months, The Seam has seen an increase in the number of requests for people who want to customise clothes.
“It’s not a coincidence that as things are getting more expensive, it is impacting the way people are seeing the things they own and how they can make changes to their existing wardrobe instead of finding something new,” Sargent said.
So, repair services like this could be a great way for consumers to protect the environment and their wallets.
The effects of the rising cost of living on the environment
In the short-term, the rising cost of living will inevitably negatively impact the environment, but there are some longer-term silver linings, Rebecca Dallimore said. Currently, the increased cost of living will cause people to seek cheaper, less sustainable options that can save them money immediately. However, in the long-term, this financial pressure on day-to-day life will lead many consumers to look at more sustainable ways of living.
“Consumers may visit local markets for fruit and veg where they’re not required to purchase a set amount, they may look into secondhand shopping for clothing and other household items, and they [may] make better use of local infrastructure to reduce day-to-day travel costs. These choices drive demand and in turn will lead to innovation and the reduced costs of more sustainable options whether that be local fruit and veg or electric cars, in the long run driving more sustainable lifestyles,” Dallimore said.
While sustainable living may bounce back from this economic crisis in the long-run, the inevitable environmental impact cannot be overstated. Mark Sait, a sustainable living expert from the money-saving and sustainability platform SaveMoneyCutCarbon, said that as strains worsen, people tend to buy lower cost products, which don’t last long. These products often aren’t repaired, get thrown out, and this waste has a massive impact on the environment and the supply chain. These products are also likely to use more plastic, further adding to the issue.
The increased consumption of products that use plastics could then lead to an increase in the amount of plastic that fails to be recycled and winds up in the ocean. We currently see eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, and according to Michelle Parkes, head of marketing at Earth Cubs, only nine percent of plastic has ever been recycled, so we need to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as we can.
Even at home, the plastic that goes into your sink, toilet or the clothing fibres in the washing machine all end up in a body of water that leads to the ocean. All the waste that ends up in the rivers, lakes, landscapes or even streets will end up being washed by the rain and making its way to the ocean where it will stay, said Andrea Torres, Europe Regional Director of Plastic Oceans.
“Our fast, expensive and occupied lives [means] we easily fall into the temptation of purchasing plastic, as it’s an easy and flexible material. We don’t take the time to think on how we could reduce our consumption and change our habits,” Torres said. “Living without plastic is a challenge because it requires compromise and consistency but if we do it little by little, without judging ourselves and having a clear idea of why we’re doing it, then we will definitely feel much better because we are not only helping the environment but also humans and ourselves.
It’s not about doing everything, but it’s better to do something than to do nothing.”
As consumers are becoming more attuned to these environmental impacts, this could influence the way companies respond to the cost of living crisis. Currently, most companies are seeing their own costs increasing and are trying to save where they can, and some may decide to compromise on their eco-friendly processes and materials. The companies that already use sustainable practices are unlikely to reverse this and risk losing business, but the companies that aren’t prioritising sustainability are unlikely to change, said Matt Williams, one of the founders of Greenspark.
Ultimately, there is a lot of hopelessness when it comes to making better lifestyle changes; the conversation surrounding sustainability and the environment is a prominent one, but people who want to take action often don’t know where to start. When this happens, these people tend not to do anything, Williams said.
Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. In the UK, the country reached this on May 19 – not even halfway through the year.
“We’re using more resources than [we] should be, and the UK isn’t even the worst offender,” Williams said. “Governments have a lot to say for greenhouse gases but we as individuals have to act too.”
If people want to be more sustainable they shouldn’t see the rising cost of living as a barrier, Williams said. Any positive action a person can take, whether that's big or small, can add up in the long run because even making small changes can drastically improve your carbon footprint. Buying second hand clothing, sharing or repairing items instead of buying new things and not buying more than you need are all ways to start reducing waste and help the environment.
“At the end of the day, the average sustainable product is often more expensive than its regular counterpart because the more things you produce, the cheaper they become. But there are ways to combat this and look at this in a different way by thinking about the longevity and quality of these pieces. When you break down the cost of each wear or use, you might actually spend a lot less,” Williams said.