Demand for eco-friendly products persists as pandemic drives single-use products

Alexis Florence
Ray Leard, chief composter at his Columbus-based business Compost Exchange

The word “sustainability” has different—and sometimes conflicting—definitions, especially in the business world. However, Ray Leard, who calls himself the chief composter at his Columbus-based business Compost Exchange, describes sustainability as less of a concrete concept and more of an awareness. It’s one he feels people are becoming more in tune with as an unexpected result of the global crisis.

“We see sustainability as an awareness of what we do individually and how it impacts our neighbors. Like Covid-19, we’re all in this together,” Leard says.

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While 2020 was once heralded as the “Year of Sustainable Business” in Forbes magazine, the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly swept into every aspect of life and corporate decision-making; environmental sustainability is clearly no exception. In May, as states across the country began weighing plans to reopen their economies, one Wall Street Journal columnist forecast a pandemic pause on businesses’ sustainability efforts in an article titled, “Sustainability Was Corporate America’s Buzzword. This Crisis Changes That.”

Central Ohio consumers have experienced changes like not being able to bring reusable cups to their favorite cafe or bags to grocers such as Lucky’s Market, Whole Foods and Giant Eagle.

Nevertheless, Leard says city dwellers especially are looking for eco-friendly alternatives in various aspects of their lives.

Desire for green replacements for single-use items in personal hygiene routines and household supplies is a trend that Adria Hall, co-owner of Koko the Shop, which opened in the Hilltop neighborhood in July, has seen in interactions with customers during the pandemic.

“People are spending more time in their houses. They have more time to think about their routines and their homes,” Hall says. “And so that leaves a lot of time to think about your impact and your choices.”

Hall and other sustainability-based business owners have had to change how they interact with customers, but the demand for their products did not disappear. Both Hall and Angie Scheu, owner of Westerville home furnishings shop Green Haven Living, expanded their online capabilities. “We launched a new online store within a week of closing [due to a state mandate] and began loading every product we could think of that our customers needed to stay safe,” Scheu says.

Scheu, while recognizing a need to prioritize health in this moment, still worries about a widespread lack of knowledge for more sustainable options. “I’m not going to tell you it’s not disappointing to see the single-use masks littering our streets and multiple recalls of sanitizers due to toxic ingredients,” Scheu says. “It is disappointing.”

Sheila Salemme, the Columbus-based designer of the sustainable fashion brand Kuma Vida, shares Scheu’s concerns that while some seek green alternatives, such as her line of handmade clothing and accessories, the pandemic has necessitated use of more single-use products, generating more waste. “I do wonder how many of us are actually trying to think of our current impact with the pandemic and all the single-use items that we’re going through,” she says.

People turn to products viewed as safer in times of a public health crisis, says Rebecca Reczek, a researcher focusing on consumers’ ethical decision-making at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. In many cases this aversion to sustainable products is due to perception, she says.

In a paper published in September 2010 by the Journal of Marketing, Reczek and fellow researchers found that during the H1N1 pandemic, consumers had a strong connection between eco-friendly products and gentleness, meaning they might avoid these products when looking for strength–such as effective hand sanitizers and cleaning agents—in the face of a public health crisis. “It doesn’t really necessarily matter whether that’s true or not; people’s perceptions are what’s guiding their choice,” Reczek says.

Another negative perception about green products is cost. Regardless of the truth for various products, eco-friendly products are seen as pricey, and that might further deter consumers, many of whom are dealing with layoffs and bleak job prospects as a result of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Perceptions can be overcome with strategic marketing that acknowledges consumers’ preconceived notions, Reczek says. She sees the demand for green products continuing to increase after the Covid-19 pandemic as people feel more secure in their personal safety and financial health.

“When someone is in a mode where they are concerned about securing their and their family’s personal safety, it is hard to think about higher-order needs like saving the planet,” Reczek says. “But hopefully, as the U.S. comes out of the pandemic [and] people are less concerned with their day-to-day safety, that might allow them to think more about these other needs.”

When imagining what a post-coronavirus crisis world looks like in terms of sustainable business practices, Bhavik Bakshi, an OSU researcher and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who has participated in the United Nations Environment Program efforts for sustainable development, says there is a larger problem businesses will be forced to confront: climate change.

“If we really want to address these kinds of issues, we need to respect nature and protect it and take care of it,” Bakshi says. “If we don’t do that then this pandemic is small potatoes.”

Alexis Florence is an intern for Dispatch Magazines.

Sheila Salemme, founder of Kuma Vida