Cost of living pressures threaten sustainable consumption

cost of living crisis

UK household carbon emissions increased less than expected in 2021 despite the easing of national lockdown restrictions, according to new research by consulting firm Accenture.

Accenture’s UK Carbon Consumption Index – which looks at how the nation’s consumption habits play a role in changing carbon emissions – found that UK households’ average weekly CO2 emissions rose by less than 1%, from 315kg in 2020 to 317kg in 2021. This is despite household expenditure increasing by over 15% over the same period in cash terms.

While the marginal uptick in household emissions could suggest that consumers took up more sustainable consumption habits, accompanying analysis of over 2,000 UK adults found that a majority believe the rising cost of living will impact their ability to consume more responsibly in the future. Specifically, 61% agreed that the energy price cap rise will negatively impact their efforts to be more sustainable.

Almost half of consumers (48%) said they are more likely to prioritise price over environmental factors when shopping because of the rising cost of living compared to just 5% who are likely to prioritise the environment over price.

Respondents also called out the role of businesses, with over half (54%) agreeing that companies aren’t doing enough to limit carbon emissions in products and services.

Of the steps brands could take to encourage people to shop more sustainably, rewards/incentives for recycling/returning the product were identified as the most effective (58%), followed by refill schemes (56%).

“Despite national restrictions easing last year, household emissions didn’t rise as much as we might have expected. This could suggest that some of the consumption changes from the pandemic – less shopping, travel and socialising – were carried forward,” said Lauren Ing, Accenture’s sustainability strategy lead for the UK and Ireland. “However, the rising cost of living could be impacting people’s ability to make more sustainable choices. While this marginal rise in average household emissions may be less than expected, they really need to be going in the other direction. It is more important than ever for businesses to focus on developing sustainable alternatives that are cost effective, requiring more innovative products and services to drive adoption.”

Under-30s became ‘carbon conflicted’
The biggest jump in carbon emissions was amongst the under 30s – a 6% increase to 125kg in average weekly carbon emissions per household member. At the same time, two-thirds of this age group (65%) said that environmental sustainability is important to them – the highest of any age group surveyed. Overall, average weekly emissions per household member was the highest for the 65 to 74 age group in 2021 at 164kg, followed by 50 to 64 year olds at 156kg.

Hospitality, shopping and transport emissions rise as restrictions eased
‘Housing, fuel, and power’ were still the biggest sources of carbon emissions, making up just over two-fifths of U.K. households’ CO2 emissions in 2021, though overall emissions in this category dropped.

This drop suggests that consumers may have invested in making their homes more energy efficient, as all products in this category saw significant reductions in their emissions intensity, including gas and electricity emissions, which fell by 18% and 9% respectively. Moreover, expenditure for the ‘maintenance and repair of dwelling’ category went up by 10% in 2021 compared to 2020.

The category which saw the biggest emissions increase was ‘Restaurants and Hotels’, up 90% to 10.8kg. However, this was largely driven by takeaway meals, highlighting another retained behaviour from successive lockdowns.

Other spending categories which saw significant emissions increases were linked to consumers returning to socialising and hospitality, including ‘Transport’, up 20% to 100.6kg, and ‘Clothing and Footwear’, up 21% to 4kg.

Cutting carbon vs cutting costs
Despite challenges around the cost of living crisis impacting consumers’ ability to make greener consumption choices, respondents said they would consider behavioural changes to both cut costs and be more sustainable – although, cost was the more important factor.

Three-quarters (75%) would cut back on heating to save money and a quarter (25%) said they would do so for environmental reasons. 63% said they would cut down on food waste to reduce costs, compared to 35% who would do so to be more sustainable.

Toby Siddall, Sustainability lead for Accenture in the UK and Ireland concluded: “Given the challenging economic environment, sustainable products and services need to be positioned as a cost-effective option for the consumer, not a premium choice. Shifting towards more circular and sustainable business models will help businesses achieve this by spurring innovation in products and production efficiency. Businesses can only make sustainability a real force for change by embedding it into the heart of their operations to drive more sustainable consumption among their customers and wider society.”

Research Methodology

Carbon Consumption Index (CCI)
Accenture commissioned Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) to produce the research. To calculate the level of emissions generated by each specific product, the average weekly spend by UK households on that product is multiplied by the estimated level of embedded CO2 emissions generated by a £ worth of spending on that item. Data on average weekly spending across different categories is sourced from the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Living Costs and Food Survey, while the levels of CO2 emissions per £ of spending are based on the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) published estimates. These emission estimates capture the carbon footprint of the production of any goods and services that are consumed in the UK, regardless of where in the world these emissions are generated. Crucially, this means that imported emissions are included in the research results. With this methodology, the emissions associated with a car produced in Germany and purchased by an individual in the UK are reflected in UK consumers’ total emissions, on the basis that the emissions are generated on the behalf of the UK customer. Since a kilogram of CO2 generates the same amount of global warming, irrespective of where it is generated, the inclusion of imported emissions is necessary in painting a complete and representative picture of UK consumers’ carbon footprint.

There was a revision to the previous CCI’s estimated average weekly CO2 emissions for 2020 (up from 204.3kg to 315.3kg) ​based on the latest ONS expenditure data. The revision can be attributed to two factors: first, DEFRA regularly revises its emissions estimates when publishing its updated tables based upon the latest source data. Second, the estimates of households’ consumption in 2020 were replaced with data from the ONS Living Cost and Food Survey for that period.