Consumers Embrace Sustainability Despite Pandemic: Genomatica Harnessing Synthetic Biology to Help Personal Care Industry Develop More Sustainable Products
Interview with Damien A. Perriman, Senior Vice President, Specialty Products
How has the pandemic affected consumers’ views toward sustainability?
In July 2020, we conducted an online survey of 2,000 U.S. adults to answer this very question. We really didn’t know how people would respond. Understandably, we anticipated that some folks might be less aware of sustainability as they battle larger health and economic concerns. On the other hand, we expected some people might be more tuned into the environment as they take a step back from their normal lives and consumption habits.
The survey results revealed that a majority (85%) of Americans have been thinking about sustainability to the same degree or more during the pandemic. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about the negative impact the pandemic has had on individuals and households this year. In fact, close to half (46%) of the survey participants who said they live in areas hit hard by COVID-19 claimed they’ve been thinking more about sustainability.
For those thinking about sustainability more, 45% said they have noticed less traffic and 42% noticed the air was cleaner. These key takeaways suggest that real-world experiences are reinforcing the relationship between human consumption and the environment, and they’re happening all around the world.
Do you think this heightened attention to sustainability will impact future purchasing decisions for personal care products?
This is one of the big questions on the minds of personal care manufacturers as they contemplate whether to reformulate their existing, petroleum-derived products or develop new, more sustainable products. It’s not unusual for today’s consumers to be thinking about the products they use, what they’re made of and how they impact the environment. But is sustainability driving them to make a measurable change in their purchasing behaviors?
Genomatica conducted asurvey in 2019 that addressed this specific question. The results revealed that consumers have a strong desire to support both sustainable products and brands, and to boycott companies that aren’t doing their part. Nearly half of consumers (46%) said they’ve boycotted a brand before; of those, 24% have done so because of unsustainable products and 23% have taken a stand due to unsustainable practices. One in four consumers (26%) said they would look for ways to spend more money with their favorite brand if it increased its sustainability.
The great news is that these trends have continued despite the pandemic. In our July 2020 survey, 43% of Americans who were laid off, furloughed or experienced a job disruption said they would still pay more for sustainable products. This data suggests that individuals aren’t willing to abandon sustainability when times get tough. Along with these positive purchasing trends, more than half (56%) of those surveyed said they want both the government and brands to prioritize sustainability even while facing other issues.
What barriers are preventing consumers from embracing sustainable personal care products more broadly?
Our July 2020 survey results suggested the pandemic hasn’t caused a profound deprioritization of sustainability goals. But there are other, long-standing barriers to the adoption of sustainable practices that remain an issue. These hurdles can create a disconnect between the desire to choose sustainable products and real purchasing decisions.
Genomatica’s 2019 survey dove deeper into some of these challenges. At the highest level, 95% of Americans said sustainability is a good goal. But we also heard that nearly half of consumers (48%) reported that convenience, lack of awareness and availability are all major obstacles to achieving it.
Consumers are also finding it difficult to understand the ins and outs of the ingredients on labels and how products are made. For example, 42% of those surveyed weren’t aware that personal care products, such as face moisturizer, often contain crude oil-based derivatives. Of the consumers committed enough to read product labels, 74% said they didn’t know what half of the ingredients are.
A lot of this confusion can be tied to transparency. Companies may be reluctant to highlight ingredients or processes that are unsustainable or that may be perceived as unsustainable. Even if goods are sustainably produced, substantiating those claims can be a long and costly process.
At least in this area, there have been some positive developments. For example, the USDA Certified Biobased Product label — a voluntary labeling initiative led by the BioPreferred® Program — is helping consumers to identify the percentage of biobased material in their products more easily. This type of label on a product allows consumers to make more sustainable choices without having to understand the particulars of every ingredient.
We see time and time again that consumers want more of this transparency. Genomatica’s recent surveys and other industry resources, such as the 2019 sustainability report from the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), show a strong appetite for information about product ingredients — how they are sourced, where they are made and by whom — as well as the overall ethical behavior of the manufacturer.
How is Genomatica leading the shift to more sustainable ingredients and personal care products?
Genomatica develops biobased process technologies that allow us to produce widely-used chemicals using natural feedstocks rather than crude oil. With these innovative processes, we can offer better economics, sustainability and performance, making it easier for companies and consumers to make more sustainable choices. Brontide™ natural butylene glycol is a great example of this. The ingredient is commonly used as a humectant, solvent and skin-feel modifier in a wide range of personal care and cosmetic products, including moisturizers, sheet masks, serums and shampoos.
While butylene glycol is typically made through a petrochemical process, Brontide is produced using an innovative fermentation process that converts renewable plant sugars into a high-purity butylene glycol. This eliminates the need for crude oil. By combining renewable feedstocks with a biobased process, we are able to slash greenhouse gas emissions by about 51% compared to a conventional petrochemical process. This unique process has resulted in two significant award wins for Genomatica: the EPA 2020 Green Chemistry Challenge Award and the 2017 ICIS Innovation Award.
Great science comes from great questions, and consumer curiosity is driving today’s market innovation. Genomatica is committed to helping personal care brands deliver the sustainable, high-performing products consumers demand.
Damien A. Perriman
Senior Vice President, Specialty Products | Genomatica
Damien leads Genomatica’s specialty products business, overseeing development, production and sales of biobased ingredients for personal care, cosmetics, flavors and fragrances. He was responsible for launching the award-winning Brontide™ natural butylene glycol in 2017 and continues to expand a pipeline of sustainable ingredients. Damien joined Genomatica in 2010 as vice president of business development.
He previously served in the New Ventures unit at The Dow Chemical Company and as Deputy Commissioner to the Americas for the Queensland Government. Damien holds an MBA from the Anderson Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles and a BSc (Hons) in Industrial Chemistry from the University of New South Wales.