The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Consumers and Sustainability

Consumers and Sustainability


June 29, 2008

More than half (55%) of consumers are familiar with the term “sustainability,” but most of these consumers cannot define the term appropriately upon probing – according to The Hartman Group’s recent Report on Sustainability. The report looked at the responses of 1,606 U.S. consumers and was conducted to better understand consumer attitudes and behaviors related to sustainability practices and products.
Even as a cultural shift is taking place in terms of consumer awareness of the topic, the everyday consumer perception of “sustainability” is not widely understood as a universal concept. Of those surveyed, only 5% indicate they know which companies support sustainability values. Only 12% indicate they know where to buy products from such companies.
Sustainability is a multi-dimensional topic that encompasses the environment, the family, the community and the economy. That means that retailers and manufacturers are faced with some real challenges in terms of using sustainability as a marketing tool. To consumers, sustainability is not simply “saving the Earth.” Each consumer appears to have his or her own take on what sustainability actually means.
Alison Worthington, Managing Director for Sustainability at The Hartman Group, says that, when marketing, companies should lean toward consumer definitions of sustainability, rather than simply relying on industry definitions. She says that retailers, while developing sustainable products and practices, have a rare opportunity to increase communication with their consumers on the topic.
“Sustainability marketing messages resonate best when they are linked to core consumer needs. As consumers move from the periphery to the core, we see the their sustainability consciousness extend outward from the individual’s need to the wider environment around them. Consumers want to save themselves and their families before they save the planet. Products and brands that can demonstrate these universal values will be all the more impactful,” she says.
When presented with a list of companies doing business in the U.S., a third of consumers (33%) chose Whole Foods Market as the company most often associated with socially responsible behavior. Whole Foods Market topped the list of companies most associated with environmental responsibility (44%) as well.
Other companies to make the socially responsible list included Wal-Mart (25%), General Mills (22%) and McDonald’s (21%). These same companies made the environmentally friendly list, albeit with slightly lower numbers (Wal-Mart at 18%, General Mills at 16% and McDonald’s at 12%).
Without a list, most consumers don’t know which companies support sustainable values. Certain company characteristics, however, resonate. Fifty-nine percent of all consumers believe “environmentally friendly companies” are not solely concerned about “the bottom line.” That same percentage believes that these companies offer extensive information on their products. Fifty-five percent say they maintain supportive relations with the local community.
The reality is that most companies are already working to achieve sustainable goals, but these actions are not being effectively leveraged. Worthington says that retailers can improve consumer perceptions in this area by focusing on communicating company narratives that connect the company to the community, while inviting their consumers to join in the dialogue.
“Consumer attitudes toward sustainability tend to be more aspirational and behavior based,” Worthington says, “and since they feel fairly powerless as individuals to make change happen, they have great expectations and hopes for companies to do the right thing. Retailers can capitalize on this by providing customers with simple, small actions they can take to make a difference.”
The study divides consumers into two segments – those inside the world of sustainability, and those outside the world of sustainability. Those inside the world – consumers who demonstrate a willingness to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives – make up 93% of adult consumers.
Those inside the world of sustainability are nearly four times as likely to pay a 10% premium for sustainable products, and almost twice as likely to think their purchases have an impact on society. The willingness to pay increases with greater sustainability consciousness.
“Core consumers align their personal values around sustainability and are willing to pay a greater premium. Periphery customers tend to place personal, everyday demands before larger issues, which they often regard as too abstract or beyond their control. Therefore, core consumers are much more likely to be motivated by appeals to environmental and social responsibility,” Worthington adds.
When consumers are asked to describe which sustainability activities they currently participate in, 76% of consumers say they turn off the faucet to conserve water while brushing their teeth and 73% percent regularly donate household items to community or non-profit outlets. Meanwhile, 65% believe sustainability is achieved by purchasing compact fluorescent light bulbs; 27% believe sustainability is achieved through composting kitchen and yard waste.
Among the six key values of sustainability identified in the study – health, buying local, social responsibility, environmental responsibility, simple living and control – health tops the list as the most significant. Food and beverages appear to be the gateway to product adoption, with other products, like energy-efficient light bulbs, natural household cleaning products, water filters and water-efficient devices gaining ground.
Water filters are currently owned by 45% of consumers in the world of sustainability, while another 18% say they hope to “buy this soon.” Thirty-two percent of consumers in this group currently own natural household cleaning products. Twenty-seven percent own household air purifiers.