in the Era of Sustainability

Understanding Consumer Behaviour in the Era of Sustainability

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Consumer behaviour has significantly transformed in recent years, driven by a heightened awareness of environmental issues and the urgent need to address climate change. Organizations are increasingly taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their social impact, and this shift profoundly impacts consumer preferences and decision-making processes. Let us explore the multifaceted nature of consumer behaviour around organizations reducing their carbon footprint and improving their social impact, delving into critical factors influencing choices in different markets and regions.

Increased Awareness:

One of the fundamental drivers shaping consumer behaviour is the increasing awareness of environmental issues, particularly climate change and carbon emissions. Modern consumers actively seek information about a company’s sustainability efforts, specifically focusing on its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. This heightened awareness stems from a global understanding of the consequences of climate change and the need for collective action. According to Deloitte’s 2022 Global Millennial Survey, 70% of millennials and Gen Z actively consider a company’s environmental and social impact when purchasing.

Preference for Eco-friendly Products:

NielsenIQ reports that most (73%) global consumers would definitely or probably change their consumption behaviour to reduce their environmental impact. As consumers become increasingly aware of what they put in and on their bodies, they’re also interested in buying and sometimes paying more for products that simultaneously help the environment. In fact, almost half (41%) of consumers from around the world say they’re highly willing to pay more for products that contain all-natural or organic ingredients.

Consumers prefer products and services produced or delivered with a lower carbon footprint. Brands that embrace eco-friendly practices and have recognized certifications or labels indicating their commitment to sustainability appeal to environmentally conscious consumers often. This preference extends beyond mere product quality, encompassing the broader impact of a company’s operations on the planet.

Price Sensitivity:

While there is a growing interest in eco-friendly products, consumers remain price-sensitive. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that while consumers prioritize sustainability, the perceived value of a product remains a critical factor in purchasing decisions. Though many are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products, there are limits to how much extra cost they are ready to bear. Striking the right balance between sustainability and affordability is crucial for organizations aiming to capture this environmentally conscious market.

Transparency and Trust:

Edelman’s Trust Barometer reveals that consumers are more likely to buy brands that commit to taking actions like improving access to healthcare (7 times more likely vs. less likely), addressing climate change (5 times more likely), and ending racism (4.5 times more likely). Consumers value transparency in an organization’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Trust is established when companies are open about sustainability initiatives and demonstrate measurable progress. Conversely, greenwashing – making false or exaggerated claims about sustainability – can erode consumer trust quickly, leading to reputational damage.

Influence of Peer and Social Media:

Recommendations from peers and social media influencers are pivotal in shaping consumer choices. Positive reviews and endorsements of environmentally responsible brands can significantly influence consumer behaviour. A survey conducted by trustpulse indicated that 49% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations from friends and family when choosing products. The interconnected nature of social media platforms amplifies the impact of such requests, creating a ripple effect that reaches a broad audience.

Regulatory Compliance:

Consumers increasingly expect organizations to comply with carbon reduction standards in regions with robust environmental regulations. Violations or non-compliance can lead to consumer backlash, as environmentally conscious individuals align their purchasing decisions with companies that adhere to and exceed regulatory requirements. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) is valuable for assessing a country’s environmental policies and regulations, providing insights into consumer expectations in specific regions. According to EPI, for 2022, Canada is ranked 49th out of 180 countries on their environmental performance using the most recent year of data available. Denmark ranked 1st, United Kingdom, 2nd the United States, 43th and Nigeria ranked 162nd.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR):

Companies with robust Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, particularly those with meaningful efforts to reduce their carbon footprint, can attract and retain customers who align with their values. The Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study highlights that 71% of consumers believe companies should be environmentally responsible in addition to turning a profit. CSR initiatives that extend beyond philanthropy to address environmental concerns are particularly impactful.

Long-term vs. Short-term Benefits:

Consumer motivations regarding sustainability can vary, with some focusing on the long-term benefits of reduced carbon emissions, such as mitigating climate change. Others may be more interested in short-term advantages, including cost savings and health benefits associated with eco-friendly products. Harvard Business Review’s article “The Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability” emphasizes that companies integrating sustainability into their strategies often experience long-term benefits such as enhanced brand reputation and customer loyalty. 

Local and Sustainable Sourcing:

Consumers may express a preference for companies that source materials locally and sustainably. This not only reduces transportation-related emissions but also supports local economies. The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform (SAI Platform) provides insights into sustainable sourcing practices in the agricultural sector. The emphasis on local and sustainable sourcing reflects a growing understanding of the interconnectedness between corporate practices and broader environmental and social impacts.

Behavioural Change:

Effective marketing campaigns encouraging consumers to adopt more sustainable behaviours can positively impact consumer choices. Messages emphasizing the importance of reducing energy consumption, adopting public transportation, or making eco-friendly decisions contribute to a broader cultural shift toward sustainability. Ideas here align with the Journal of Marketing Research study on the effectiveness of different messaging strategies in promoting sustainable consumer behaviours. Also, according the Journal of Social Marketing, single frames (loss or gain) do not reliably increase sustainable consumer behaviour. Instead, the use of two message frames loss and gain) is more consistently effective.

Eco-labels and Certifications:

Eco-labels, such as the Energy Star label for energy-efficient appliances, serve as visual cues that help consumers make informed choices. These labels provide a recognizable symbol of eco-friendliness and can significantly influence purchasing decisions. The Energy Star program is managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and offers a reliable source of information on energy-efficient products and practices.

Product Life Cycle Considerations:

Consumers are increasingly considering not only the carbon footprint of a product but also its entire life cycle – from production to disposal. This holistic approach to consumption reflects a growing understanding of the environmental impact of various stages of a product’s life. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy reports provide valuable insights into considering product life cycles in sustainability efforts.

Social and Cultural Factors:

Cultural and social values play a significant role in shaping consumer behaviour. Some cultures place a higher value on sustainability and environmental responsibility, influencing purchasing decisions and brand preferences. The World Values Survey is a comprehensive resource for understanding cultural values and their impact on various aspects of society, including consumer behaviour.

Behavioural Nudges:

Behavioural economics techniques that provide information and incentives can influence consumer choices in favour of lower-carbon options. Nudges that make sustainable choices more accessible and attractive can lead to positive changes in consumer behaviour. The Behavioral Insights Team, commonly known as the “Nudge Unit,” researches the effectiveness of behavioural interventions in various contexts, including sustainability.

In summary, consumer behaviour around organizations reducing their carbon footprint is a complex interplay of factors influenced by awareness, values, trust, and external influences. The growing interest in sustainability and environmental responsibility is evident, but the depth of commitment and the specific factors guiding consumer choices can vary widely. Organizations that prioritize and effectively communicate their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint stand to gain a competitive advantage in a market where consumers increasingly value sustainability. As the world grapples with environmental challenges, understanding and responding to evolving consumer behaviour is essential for businesses seeking to navigate this new landscape.

References

Deloitte’s 2022 Global Millennial Survey. Retrieved from Dec 8, 2023. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/at/Documents/human-capital/at-gen-z-millennial-survey-2022.pdd

A ‘natural’ rise in sustainability around the world from Dec 8, 2023. https://nielseniq.com/global/en/insights/analysis/2019/a-natural-rise-in-sustainability-around-the-world/

Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: The Collapse of the Purchase Funnel. Retrieved Dec 8, 2023. https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2023-06/Edelman_BrandTrust_Top10.pdf

2022 EPI Results. Retrieved from Dec 11, 2023. https://epi.yale.edu/epi-results/2022/component/epi

THE 2020 PORTER NOVELLI Executive PURPOSE STUDY S E P T 2020 Retrieved from Dec 8, 2023 https://www.porternovelli.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/01_PORTER-NOVELLI-EXECUTIVE-PURPOSE-STUDY-LEADERSHIP-ACTION-ACCOUNTABILITY-AT-THE-C-SUITE.pdf

The Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability Retrieved from Dec 8, 2023 https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-comprehensive-business-case-for-sustainability

Sustainable agriculture for a better world. Retrieved from Dec 8, 2023 https://saiplatform.org/

Message framing effects on sustainable consumer behaviour: a systematic review and future research directions for social marketing. Retrieved on Dec 8, 2023. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/362236771_Message_framing_effects_on_sustainable_consumer_behaviour_a_systematic_review_and_future_research_directions_for_social_marketing

The Energy Star Program. Retrieved on Dec 8, 2023. https://www.energystar.gov/

Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy reports. Retrieved on Dec 8, 2023 https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications

World Values Survey. Retrieved on Dec 8, 2023 https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/wvs.jsp

About Post Author

Obie Agusiegbe

A Certified Sustainability and Environmental Management Expert with over 20 years’ experience in the sustainability sector. She works with organizations interested in improving their sustainability performance by assisting them identify and implement ways to include environmental and social aspects into their existing offerings. Her solutions are innovative and build bridges globally International Development | Africa | Clean Technologies | Climate Resilience | Humanitarian | Fairness
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