The elusive Singaporean green consumer in a post-pandemic world

Consumers are citing cost as a key barrier to living a sustainable life in the island state, according to the latest OCBC Climate Index. But the same survey finds more Singaporeans purchasing brand new, non-essential items more frequently.

Singapore consumer_shopping trolley
Experts say that to drive a change in the daily choices that Singaporeans make, organisations or the government need to make it easy and less costly for people to adopt sustainable behaviour. Image: Hanson Lu / Unsplash

Air travel is on the rebound, more Singaporeans are using air-conditioning to cool their homes, and compared to a year ago, many now buy brand new, non-essential items more frequently – more than once a month. 

For younger demographic cohorts commonly known as millennials and ‘Gen Zs’, which typically refer to those aged 40 and below this year, about 30 per cent now spend on new items beyond their regular household and food purchases at least once every two weeks. 

These are some of the findings of a recent survey conducted in June of over 2,100 consumers by Singapore-based OCBC Bank. It has led the bank to conclude that the majority of Singaporeans are not embracing a eco-conscious lifestyle, despite the nation’s launch of an action plan that maps out its sustainable development agenda by 2030, as well as continued policy conversations on climate change at the national level for the past year. 

“If they do, the motivations are primarily driven by personal practical benefits and not for the environment,” said OCBC in a media release on Tuesday. The OCBC Climate Index, now in its second year and developed in partnership with Eco-Business, tracks environmental awareness and action among Singaporeans. Singapore’s score, on a scale of 0 to 10, has remained stagnant at 6.7 this year. 

Academics who study consumer behaviour, however, say that it is important to take a nuanced approach when interpreting the new data. The Covid-19 pandemic and cost pressures might have taken a toll on the mental well-being of Singaporeans, including on young working professionals. 

For a country so small, Singapore has achieved an extremely high per capita gross domestic product (GDP). There are things to be proud of…but there is also a price to pay. People are highly stressed.

Dr Jimmy Wong, associate professor, marketing programme, Singapore University of Social Sciences

“When people need to relieve stress with immediacy, they are not going to think about saving the planet. As we recover from a difficult pandemic, Singaporeans don’t want delayed gratification,” said Dr Jimmy Wong, associate professor of the marketing programme at Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). “They are going to say, I’ve had a hard day and I want to take care of myself.”

“They may be stingy when it comes to buying an Impossible burger at a fast food outlet, but when they go out on a Friday night after a week’s work, they are going to treat themselves to something good. Same goes for spending on new things,” he said. 

Stress vs sustainability 

Recent global studies have pointed to how inflation has impacted sustainable behaviour. In June, London-based brand consultancy Kantar found that consumers are prepared to abandon eco-friendly brands to save money. Another six-country survey revealed that economic pessimism is affecting the propensity among consumers to pay a premium for sustainability. 

Singaporeans are also citing cost as one of the key barriers to making a sustainable switch in lifestyle choices. About 44 per cent of the respondents say cost is the main obstacle, while 36 per cent cited inconvenience. 

OCBC Climate Index 202_consumption

Compared to 2021, there is nearly a 10 per cent jump in the proportion of respondents who say they buy a new, non-essential item more than once a month. Image: OCBC Climate Index 2022

Wong says what is peculiar for Singapore is how its economy is structured, making it one of the world’s most competitive economies, yet at the same time with a workforce that consistently ranks in studies as the most unhappy in the world. 

“For a country so small, Singapore has achieved an extremely high per capita gross domestic product (GDP). There are things to be proud of, for example how the nation has had the resources to secure effective vaccines for everyone during the pandemic. But there is also a price to pay. People are highly stressed.” 

This could mean that to drive a change in the daily choices that Singaporeans make, organisations or the government need to recognise the role of heuristics – mental shortcuts that human beings take – in buying decisions, making it easy and less costly for people to adopt sustainable behaviour, said Wong. “Basically it means not to ‘hard sell’ the message of saving the earth, be pragmatic and focus on the effect that you want at the end of the day.” 

Ang Swee Hoon, associate professor, department of marketing at NUS Business School, said that given the difficult circumstances brought about by the pandemic, it might not be fair to say that the Singapore Green Plan or active advocacy has failed.

“More data and tracking of consumer behaviour are needed to better conclude if Singaporeans have really become less sustainable in their permanent lifestyle choices. It might be revenge travelling or pent-up demand,” she said. 

Secondhand movement gains steam 

Ang says that there are also bright spots in the survey results that indicate improvement. 71 per cent of respondents now say that they choose to walk, cycle or take the public transport, rather than travel by car, compared to 68 per cent in 2021. 

OCBC Climate Index 2022_recommerce

Image: OCBC Climate Index 2022

People are making secondhand purchases too, with 77 per cent of respondents saying that they choose secondhand clothing and furniture, compared to 71 per cent the year before. 

Sustainable fashion advocate Susannah Jaffer notes that sales are up significantly by about 53 per cent for the retail arm of Zerrin, the sustainable platform that she founded, this year, especially as travel has opened up over the past three months. She believes that if data shows that Singaporeans are choosing more thoughtfully and opting for secondhand goods or supporting brands that are more conscious, that is a good thing, although she increasingly recognises that there is consistently “a natural tension between sustainability and growth” for the retail sector. 

How to buy sustainably

  • Buy less but better quality
  • Choose secondhand
  • Think about concepts like cost per wear
  • Foster a ‘sense of connection’ to your purchases

Source: Susannah Jaffer, Zerrin

“While growth in sales is something to be celebrated, it simultaneously makes one more conscious – especially when you are in the business of wanting to shift mindsets around consumption – that people are not over-buying or impulse purchasing,” she added. “While we are happy that our company is growing, we are faced with a moral conundrum: how big should we grow?”    

Jaffer said that the underlying mission of the sustainable fashion movement should be to encourage others to foster mindfulness and a “sense of connection” to their purchases – things they bring into their lives. “Therefore we do not employ the traditional language of fast fashion marketing or advertising. We rarely go on sale. We consistently share messages exploring sustainable consumption and all of its nuances.” 

Baby boomers lead the pack in embracing climate action

The OCBC Climate Index 2022 survey outlines four lifestyle themes that represent urban living, weighted based on how they impact an individual’s carbon footprint – transport (45 per cent), home (25 per cent), food (15 per cent) and goods (15 per cent). 

For transport, flights have picked up to all parts of the world as borders have reopened – 55 per cent of respondents have travelled by air compared to 44 per cent last year. 

Those who consume red meat are doing so more frequently, with 78 per cent of respondents eating red meat once a week or more, as opposed to 72 per cent in 2021. 

At home, more Singaporeans are switching on their air conditioners. 21 per cent are using air conditioners as their main mode of cooling their homes, an uptick from 17 per cent in 2021. However, the majority of Singaporeans surveyed (76 per cent) set their temperatures to the recommended 24 degrees Celsius or higher.

Baby boomers, which includes respondents aged between 58 and 65, had the highest scores across three key pillars – environmental awareness, adoption and advocacy. 

OCBC Climate Index 2022_baby boomers

Baby boomers had the highest scores across three key pillars - environmental awareness, adoption and advocacy. Image: OCBC Climate Index 2022

The score for advocacy for this particular demographic group saw a sharp rise from 4.7 to 6.1, prompting OCBC to follow up with an in-depth survey to find out the reasons for the trend. It said that baby boomers had gained confidence in using digital tools during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“They have adopted good habits since young and have accumulated awareness and knowledge of climate change over time … green habits suit the life stage that they are at. They are less busy and can take the time to walk, cycle or take public transport,” said the bank in its media release. 

Dr Wong added that for baby boomers, the gap between intention and behaviour when it comes to adopting sustainable choices is smaller, as some might have retired and can put more time and effort into altering their lifestyles. “The younger generations have lesser mental capacity to engage in real change, even when they have the intention to do so.” 

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