Sustainability: the core consideration for tomorrow’s consumer
Simon Carr, chief strategy officer at Hearts & Science considers the forces for environmental change and the rise of conscious consumerism
The ‘Greta Thunberg effect’, which suggests the teenager’s activism has significantly impacted the public’s willingness to take collective action on climate change, is now rooted in scientific enquiry.
Yet, even before social psychologists had formally identified the phenomenon, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that Thunberg was changing minds the world over - and particularly in young people and children, who could more easily identify with her.
Here was an anxious teenager calling on other kids to step up and challenge their elders - parents, politicians and CEOs - about catastrophic environmental negligence. The effect caused something of a collective panic and spawned outrage about what sort of world our children would inherit.
Indeed, the anxieties younger people have about the environment are now considered so much stronger than those of older generations, that some studies have identified a ‘global warming age gap’.
Yet Greta, of course, isn’t the only influence here. In the UK, for example, many schools teach environmentalism from the earliest years, while lobbying is now underway to have the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals integrated into the National Curriculum.
Meanwhile, green issues make many more overt appearances in children’s popular culture, while social media has transformed how information is shared amongst young people, all helping shift attitudes and behaviours.
This means, when it comes to levels of concern and awareness about consumerism and sustainability, we do see differences between the generations. And that’s something marketers will need to work with.
Consider how ‘pester power’ - which parents and marketers alike will be deeply familiar with - will play a role in changing household consumption habits as environmental concerns grow; and furthermore how marketers might consider using it to support environmentally conscious marketing.
We have known for decades that children impact the buying decisions of parents, for good or ill - but when it comes to nagging for a more ethical standard of consumption, pester power takes on a much more significant role. It also gives us a glimpse of how consumer attitudes might change over time by identifying them in young people today.
Furthermore, it allows us to better understand what holds older cohorts back from making green purchases, and what type of marketing communications can help usher in greener shopping habits for all, especially those less susceptible to green messaging.
Because make no mistake, our buying behaviours will have to change if we’re to meet the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 - a task that will transform our economy.
The latest findings from the Forces of Change report, which examines attitudes to sustainability and consumerism, suggest that pester power is already having an impact on household shopping habits.
For instance, parents of children aged 5-11, and especially those with one child, are more likely to choose eco-friendly products than those with children aged four and under, or aged 12-18 - in tune with the green syllabus at primary schools hitting home.
The alternative reading - or contributory factor - is that having children triggers parents to focus more on the future and the long-term quality of their children’s lives, making sustainability a more significant consideration.
These findings are part of a wider trend towards ‘conscious consumerism’, with our research showing that nearly three-quarters of consumers (70%) buy sustainable, eco-friendly products, of whom 22% do so regularly and 48% sometimes.
In addition, around a third suggest they will increase their spend on sustainable food and drink (32%) and home essentials (31%) next year – two categories that seem to be driving the uptake of sustainable products.
However, there are also factors that stop more people from buying green.
For instance, more than half of consumers say higher pricing and lack of variety are the main culprits, while a smaller proportion think eco-friendly products are worse quality. Meanwhile - and rather curiously - nearly a fifth cite lack of availability as a barrier.
Clearly, there’s an education job to be done but brands can circumvent this simply by making green options the standard option in their ranges.
Although pester power remains a key purchase lever for parents, our shopping choices are also influenced by our peers as we’re inclined to follow the common course of behaviour. ‘Norms’ matter.
Other tactics to guide consumers in the right direction include highlighting the most tangible benefits of sustainable choices to the shopper where possible - for example in highlighting the cost savings over the ethics.
Plan for change
Marketers therefore have an opportunity to address misconceptions, double down on behaviour changing tactics, and work with those that want to encourage positive behaviours in others.
Ultimately, eco marketing strategies must communicate with a diverse range of ages, recognising that each will have different attitudes and a set of behaviours linked to environmental issues.
Here there is an opportunity for brands to experiment with behavioural science and its newer offshoot, nudge theory. Neither has taken much of a leading role in many agencies, but they offer powerful strategies to help change habits across generations, deploying heuristics and neuroscience to influence behaviour change through positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions.
For a subject as tricky as sustainability - asking meat lovers to eat less meat, petrol heads to switch to electric and so on - nudge theory is a useful tool as it never asks too much of someone to change their behaviour. And in its numerous real-world examples, it is the simple things that have the most profound changes.
If we hone these skills today and plan for higher levels of conscious consumerism in future, then our own small actions as marketers could also have significant impacts.
Efforts to shop sustainably today might be dominated by the lower cost categories, but as assessing a brand’s eco credentials becomes the norm amongst younger audiences, we can expect higher value categories to make sustainability a core consideration in future.
Indeed, our research shows that 59% of consumers believe sustainability credentials are already important for motoring purchases, 56% for home appliance purchases, and 50% for furniture.
Marketers should therefore begin planning for this shift today.
Not only is it the responsible thing to do - it really will become a business imperative. Much of the next generation of consumers are going to view the ethical credentials of the brands they buy from as a key purchase consideration.
Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, has already highlighted this. He warns that firms ignoring the climate crisis will go bust, while UN-funded research shows that carbon-intensive firms are likely to lose almost half of their value thanks to policies designed to combat climate change.
By comparison, the same research - which applies to any product category - predicts progressive companies will gain 33% of their value due to the tailwinds in this area.
The ‘Greta Thunberg effect’ was incremental and started rippling outwards from the time photos of her first solo protests outside the Swedish Parliament were published online. These small beginnings captured the public consciousness and kickstarted a global wake-up call.
The lesson from Greta is that even the smallest of starts can make a huge difference and (hopefully) lead to lasting changes.
It’s up to businesses to respond to consumer sentiment, but when it’s for the right reasons even when that sentiment is not shared by all. Brands have the power to encourage global behavioural shifts, but if everyone is not going to buy into it willingly, a series of gentle nudges will be far more powerful than a single shove.
Pestered or otherwise, much is changing in shopper behaviour and how we understand and respond to this. Let’s keep digging deeper to learn more, because sustainability is swiftly moving to become a central consideration for businesses and consumers alike.
To find out more about conscious consumerism, download Hearts & Science's Forces of Change report here.