Approximately a year ago, I was on my way to conduct fieldwork in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam focusing on young consumers perceptions with regard to sustainable consumption behavior.
Little did I know, when I started this journey and writing my project description for scholarships from Lund University, Sweden, that this fieldwork would take place during a global pandemic.
And little did I know that the people who contributed to the study would be victims of this virus.
I was quite aware of the Covid-19 virus while writing my project description, as I was living and studying in Beijing at the end of 2019, yet at that time, the World Health Organization had not declared it to be a global pandemic. Despite this, I was still quite fortunate in my research due to the generous support from people in Sweden and Vietnam who went far and beyond to contribute to this study.
And because of that, I want to dedicate this article to the people who contributed and to shed light on the importance of focusing on young consumers regarding sustainability in Vietnam.
Consumers, Youth and Sustainability
Little is known (at least from English scholar articles) about young urban consumer in Vietnam and their perceptions of sustainable consumption. Therefore, this field study focused on how young consumers perceive their behavior with regard to sustainable consumption behavior as well as how local companies perceives young consumers behavior as they have a direct correlation. Young urban consumer represents a key segment to investigate as Vietnam’s economic prosperity is underpinned by the young and fast-growing labor market (Huong Pham T., 2018, p, 16).
People are the main drivers for prosperity, especially young people, as they represent a large proportion of affluent societies’ total consumption expenditure. The scholar’s John Fien, Camron Niel, and Matthew Bently showed that youth spending power in 11 major economies is around 750 billion US$, which illustrates a substantial influence over the market.
Despite this, some scholars argue that young people are often ignored and a critical group to target in the drive for a sustainable future.
However, other scholars argue that young people have an impact and are leading movements for change of existing economic systems. Young people are leading movements for change in different parts of society.
For instance, a young consumer expressed the following regarding plastic which has been a sustainability topic in Vietnam for a while:
“Vietnam have used a lot of plastic over the years, for instance, my mom when she went to the market, she bought a lot of groceries but a lot of them where put into separate plastic bags. But this trend has been going on for a while and people are more aware of how plastic affect the environment and people are starting to change their behavior, but this trend started with the young people. We use fabric bag to buy groceries and my mom was asking me why I’m so obsessed with the environment, but I’ve been nagging her about her behavior, and she has kept herself update following things on the TV and have changed her behavior as well.” – Young consumer.
The fact is that young consumers represent a tantamount volume of the consumer market which consequently impacts world societies and the environment. Statistics from 2012 on Vietnam showed that over 30% of the working population (65 % of the whole population) were between 15 and 30 years (de Koning, et al. 2015, p, 609).
Vietnam Then and Now
“When I first came to Vietnam in 1996, I only saw bicycles on the street, and now in 2020, I see Bentley’s driving around.”– Local company owner in Ho Chi Minh City.
I can relate to the above quote. When I first came to Vietnam in 2014, I traveled from north to south for over one month and I saw similar view. Six years after my first visit, I saw many things had happened to this emerging economy.
Vietnam is an emblematic new center of consumption in Asia and one of the centers of new middle-class consumers, giving us a lens through to view changing consumption patterns in Asia’s emerging young middle class.
Hence, it is an important group to focus on when it comes to sustainability. And Vietnam has shown high progressiveness in becoming a sustainable society.
The willingness to change appears as strong and positive for the Vietnamese government as for its citizens. This was evident from a young consumer in the study.
However, she expressed that there are constraints in pursuing a sustainable consumption behavior in Vietnam.
“…Even though my will is to have a sustainable consumption, but in fact my environment makes me not pursue sustainable consumption…” – Young consumer.
According to the two scholars, Tri D. Le and Tai Anh Kieu, in a survey conducted by Nielsen in 2015, they concluded that Vietnamese consumers in the Asia-Pacific region have the highest social consciousness in stating a willingness to pay for products from companies that care for social and environmental values.
This was also acknowledged in my fieldwork of young consumers perception’s with regard to sustainable consumption behavior.
Young consumers expressed overall a willingness to pay more for sustainable products and services if they could have more insight into companies’ activities.
This was also in line with one of the local companies that I interviewed. The quote below illustrates that there are opportunities for consumers to learn about company transparency – which young consumers desire.
Furthermore, the local company shared that young consumers not only want to buy sustainable products but also want to be involved in the sustainable process. She saw this firsthand with her farm and how they engage and include young consumers.
“I think they want to be more active, if you ask them to come to the farm […] they don’t only want to give you the money, they want to be active and involved. The more you get them involved, the more they understand, the more they feel useful and helpful and see their impact. When they get more involved, they understand the constraints for the business. When we ask them to come to the field the impact was very positive.” – Local company owner in Ho Chi Minh City.
Awareness, Action & Pricing
Despite this willingness, some scholars, e.g., Hoon C. & Hyun Park J., argue that Vietnam still lacks environmental protection awareness and this has yet to become a part of Vietnamese citizens’ daily lives.
This is partly in line with the feedback from the local companies I interviewed during the fieldwork.
The quote below by a local company illustrates a local company’s’ effort to meet the demand of the consumers targeting plastic straws, which is highly relevant and discussed by the Vietnamese consumers.
However, from the local company’s understanding, the market is not ready to pay an extra 1000 Vietnamese Dong (0,043 US dollars).
“So I can give you one example – the plastic straw on the side of a Tetra Pak costs you nothing but if you change it to an environmentally friendly straw you might add a 25 percent increase in cost. I see that that many want are willing to pay 7000 Vietnamese dong but even the small increase to 8000 Vietnamese dong is a problem. You are then out of the market. Nobody will buy from you.” – Local company owner in Ho Chi Minh City.
While there is a willingness from young consumers, they lack sufficient knowledge and interest. Added to this, the market is yet too expensive for this group due to their limited income.
The following quote illustrates that young consumers from this study seem to be more concerned about plastic rather than the actual product they are buying.
“…the use of plastic is everywhere. Even if you ask not to have plastic, the seller will always give it to you when buying fish or meat at the market. So that’s the situation in Vietnam, we still have a lot of things to do.” – Young consumer.
This ties well with a previous study that concluded that personal responsibility is still limited in terms of protecting the environment and conserving natural resources (Hoon C. & Hyun Park J., 2017, p, 23). However, it is important to point out that there is a difference between meat and industrial meat, which is not clear from the quote above.
Jumping on the Plastic Coattails
The concern about plastic can be connected to the influence of plastic reduction campaigns, which have been a hot topic since the Vietnamese government announced its first national anti-plastic parade in 2019 (Saigoneer, 2019). This announcement has further led to campaigns on different social platforms in Vietnam about plastic consumption and promoting consumers’ knowledge.
This is necessarily not a bad thing.
Rather, this shows the opposite side, namely that young consumers are receptive to sustainable movements and trends. Jumping on the plastic coattails and riding it can only be positive.
If more of these campaigns would be as widespread as the plastic campaign, it could lead and create new and sustainable consumption patterns and knowledge.
This also illustrates young consumers’ critical group to target in the drive for a sustainable future.
To sum up, findings from empirical data and all the perceptions that have covered plastic topic shows there might not be one clear-cut answer for how young consumers and local companies perceive young consumers’ behavior regarding sustainable consumption.
However, based on the data’s findings, the conclusion is that young consumers perceive their behavior as unsustainable if the product contains plastic.
There is no question of Vietnam’s progressiveness and the social movement regarding the plastic movement. The interaction between young consumers on various social media platforms and their willingness is valuable.
Suppose companies continue to increase their transparency and break down other barriers for this group?
In that case, it could lead to further sustainable consumption behavior as young consumers have proven to be a critical group to target in the drive for a sustainable future.
All the more reason for me to come back to Vietnam to continue my research.
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Names and company names are not divulged due to the privacy agreement in the research.