Sustainability: Bridging the gap between intent and consumer action

Authors: Rebecca Brody – Strategy Director at The Lab Insight & Strategy

Femi Hardwick-Slack – Associate Director at Nature Research

In recent times, the issue of environmental sustainability has become impossible to ignore. With public figures like Greta Thunberg, Prince Harry and David Attenborough speaking out, protests taking place across the nation, and an increasingly intense and urgent tone in news and social media, it’s not surprising that many brands are sitting up and taking notice.

Countless articles have already been written about consumer demand for ‘green’ products and services, citing the growing importance Australians place on sustainability, and their claimed intent to buy/ engage with environmentally friendly offerings. Undoubtedly there is strong mainstream sentiment, with 62% of Australians saying they place more emphasis on sustainability than they did 12 months ago, and an average of 4 in 10 claiming environmental considerations cross their mind when shopping for consumer goods. Yet many brands have found this doesn’t always translate into action, with sustainable products and services often receiving a muted response from consumers. Even in instances where brands have engaged consumers to understand the types of sustainable attributes (e.g. recycled materials, packaging, sustainable fabrics etc.) they want to see, and have then built an offering tailored around this, response at shelf has often proven underwhelming.

Consumers certainly expect brands to act sustainably and embed this into their offerings and practices. 58% of Australians say they expect big brands to set an example, and 52% think all businesses should be doing everything they can to be environmentally friendly. But by their own admission, consumers can’t be relied upon to always make sustainable choices (particularly when it comes to purchasing), with 8 in 10 acknowledging they don’t do as much as they could. So why is this the case? And given the significant investment sustainability often requires, how can businesses set themselves up for the best chance of success, and to ensure their efforts have impact?

To help shed light on this, Nature & The Lab Strategy conducted an online survey with 2000 Australians, and undertook cultural analysis of news and social media posts over the last 12 months. Here is what we found.

Sustainable choices are more likely to be made when convenient (and there is something in it for the consumer)

There is clearly momentum when it comes to action, with 61% of Australians saying they do more in this space than they did 12 months ago. Using recycling bins, taking bags to the supermarket, and switching lights off when leaving a room are all common practices, facilitated by ease of implementation, constant reminders, and often cost-saving benefits. But when it comes to purchasing sustainably, greater effort and compromise is often required, which creates barriers. Many consumers are also challenged by a lack of knowledge on sustainability and claims from brands they find confusing. Critically, cost is a significant hurdle, with many pointing to higher prices as the main reason for not buying sustainably.

Does this mean brands can’t expect consumers to make sustainable choices, particularly if there is a price premium?

Positively, our study found that there is a way through this. The evidence suggests that if a sustainable proposition is framed in the right way, consumers are often willing to engage and put their money where their mouths are.

So how can this be achieved? We identified three key avenues for influence.

  1. Build a strong sustainable value proposition

Our study revealed that on occasions where consumers have paid more for a sustainable product alternative, in most cases they perceived other related benefits (outside of the positive environmental benefits). These benefits vary by category, but include attributes such as superior quality, taste, naturalness, healthiness, and aesthetic qualities that come with the sustainable offer.  This demonstrates that consumers don’t consider sustainability in isolation – they often assess the ‘value’ a sustainable product represents. This can be tangible or perceptual, with status also often playing a key influential role. Brands like Keep Cup and Tom Organic have been particularly effective at doing this, by not only embedding environmental friendliness into their products, but also tapping into and dialing up related product benefits that consumers value.

The brands that drive the greatest the consumer response are often the ones that make sustainability a strong value proposition. Key to this is identifying the most relevant and impactful drivers to couple with sustainability and combine with effective cues/ messaging, to create a compelling ‘sustainable’ package that leverages the underlying consumer needs and desires, proving more powerful than altruism alone.

  1. Leverage behavioural economics

Behavioural economics can provide some useful strategies for effectively influencing consumers, guiding them into making more sustainable decisions. One of several principles we explored as part of our study is the ‘Defaults’ principle. This is based on the idea that where there is inaction or difficulty making a choice, a pre-set course of action that takes effect if nothing is specified nudges people towards desired behaviour.

We tested the effect of this by placing participants in a scenario simulating an online hotel booking. All participants were asked by the hotel whether they would like to carbon offset their stay for $3.03 per night. However, the framing of this proposition differed.

Group A were given the choice and presented with ‘Yes please add $3.03 per night to my bill’ or ‘No thanks’ option buttons.

Group B were also presented with the choice to opt-in or out of the initiative, but this time with default framing applied.  The buttons were instead labelled ‘Click to confirm support’ or ‘Click to remove’ with respective green and red shading.

The results show default framing in Group B had a significant impact, with a 51% uplift in participants choosing to carbon offset their stay.

This is just one example – there are other BE principals that can be effectively applied to achieve more sustainable outcomes. By exploring these options further and testing in relation to their own initiatives, brands can utilise simple nudges to optimise sustainable efforts and drive better outcomes.

  1. Lead with positivity

In the last 12 months, conversations surrounding the environment and sustainability have become particularly heated, and infused with anger, blame and increasing frustration. These associations mean many brands are cautious to get involved, concerned they’ll get caught in divisive narrative that could negatively impact their image.

Australians are also getting tired of the antagonistic and partisan rhetoric in the political sphere. 43% feel particularly negative about the government’s response to the bushfires and consequently lack confidence in their ability to drive the change needed.  Many are now looking to brands to step up and lead the way, providing a clear pathway forward through education and influence.

Through this a new narrative is taking shape – one that is built on optimism. Many locally based B corps and mainstream brands are moving the tone in a more uplifting direction, focusing on inclusiveness and positive collective impact, rather than guilting Australians on their behaviours. Studies have shown that individuals must feel ethically validated, not guilty, in order to behave in an environmentally friendly way. Positivity therefore provides a much more effective avenue for impact and offers a more brand-friendly way of weighing in on an important issue.

While sustainability is a daunting and challenging space for brands to navigate, it is no longer an issue that can be left alone. The good news is that by building relevant insight and testing out new approaches influenced by this, brands can convert challenge into opportunity, driving positive impact that benefits all.

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