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Sustainability a Key Factor for Consumers, Survey Finds

By on December 5th, 2012

Given my long-ish history in market research and survey data (I still have fond memories of the old TrendWatch days), I am drawn to the various consumer sustainability surveys that occasionally appear. The latest is called Re: Thinking Consumption: Consumers and the Future of Sustainability, developed by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility. It comprises responses from more than 6,000 consumers from six countries. Some top-level findings from the Executive Summary:

Nearly two-thirds of respondents across six markets (66%) say that “as a society, we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations,” and 65% say they feel “a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”

Consumers in developing markets (Brazil, China, India) are more than twice as likely as their counterparts in developed markets (Germany, United Kingdom, United States) to report that they purchase products because of environmental and social benefits (51% to 22%), are willing to pay more for sustainable products (60% to 26%) and encourage others to buy from companies that are socially and environmentally responsible (70% to 34%).

The report also identifies a group of consumers it refers to as “Aspirationals,” described as

seeking both sustainability and consumption. They are looking for brands to provide solutions that both improve their lives and serve the larger society. And, because they are trendsetters in emerging markets like China and India, we believe business has the opportunity to shape a new consumerism by meeting their aspirations and desires with more sustainable products and lifestyle choices.

Or, essentially, they are seeking companies to help facilitate “sustainable consumption,” which strikes me as a bit of an oxymoron. Is consumption inherently unsustainable? I’m not yet convinced that it is, but the impression I get about these Aspirationals from the comments in the report is that the burden of sustainability is on companies and not on changing or altering one’s own behavior in dramatic ways.

Elsewhere in the report:

The two most common sustainable behaviors among all consumers surveyed are recycling and using reusable shopping bags. Six in ten consumers (61%) say they “recycle materials that can be recycled” and “use my own reusable shopping bags rather than accepting bags from the store or market” on a regular basis, followed by buying “products whose contents and/or packaging can be recycled” (58%), and “checking the list of ingredients before purchasing” (57%).

Basically, the easier it is to do something, the more common it is. And that is really the crux of any kind of sustainable behavior at the consumer level. While working on a project for one of my grad school classes this semester, I came across a brace of studies from the UK that looked at sustainable actions, behaviors, and attitudes and the biggest takeaway was that if something is fairly easy and inexpensive to implement (recycling because one’s municipality provides recycling bins and regular pick up) it will become more common. At the same time, once sustainable behavior becomes “normalized”—it is the expected thing to do, kind of like peer pressure, in a way—that also helps these behaviors become more common.

But getting back to the Regeneration survey and the Aspirationals, Triple Pundit points out that these folks should be courted by sustainable businesses whilst acknowledging but many of these consumer sustainability surveys inevitably turn up: “reality shows people don’t really mean what they say about preferring sustainable products or consuming less in general.” But putting skepticism aside for the moment, and taking the responses at face value, what should companies do to attract the business of these folks?

Obviously the “easiest” way to do it would be to provide consumers with sustainable products that don’t cost more and have similar, if not better, quality. Companies will need to be more innovative (BBMG’s Disrupt and Delight report provides some excellent examples on how to do it), utilize crowdsourcing tools and be more open-minded to new design concepts and business models.

Ah! Easy peasy. Concludes the report itself:

Aspirational consumers love shopping, prize social connections and they also want to make a difference for people and the planet. We believe the best way to deliver on these seemingly conflicting desires is by embracing sustainable brand innovation whereby companies consider the full set of relationships in every part of the value chain  — consumer, product, brand, community and planet — and unleash the mutually beneficial roles that we can play as individuals, organizations and as a society.

Brands will win by embedding sustainability and social purpose into every business strategy, product design and stakeholder relationship. And by creating better brands, products, packaging and platforms, companies can become agents of change at a faster speed and larger scale than ever before.

And yet the perpetual challenge is how consumers get accurate information about “sustainability and social purpose.”