It’s the 52nd annual Earth Day soon, with this year’s theme “Invest In Our Planet” once again reminding us all of the importance of sustainable living. It comes at a concerning time for the planet, however, with the IPCC’s recent climate report making it pretty clear that time is running out.
By now, brands should understand that this is a huge concern to consumers. Being eco-friendly is the number 1 thing they want from brands.
And with nearly 3 in 5 willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, sustainability isn’t just a PR exercise – it’s a chance to improve your bottom line.
With data from our Core research and a Zeitgeist study we ran in March 2022, we’re revisiting the topic of green consumerism to ask key questions like:
- What’s the general vibe around eco-consciousness right now?
- Is the messaging around climate change due an update?
- Do older generations care more about sustainability than we think?
- Are consumers still willing to pay for eco-friendly products?
- What do brands need to watch out for in their messaging?
The future of the environment is still a concern
Let’s get one thing straight; not everyone pictures a doomsday scenario when it comes to the planet’s future; 44% of global consumers actually expect the environment to get better in the next 6 months.
But that doesn’t mean it’s time to get complacent; these figures can mask some worrying truths.
For one, the number who expect things to improve has fallen dramatically since the highs seen at the beginning of the pandemic. At the same time, expectations of things getting worse have risen sharply – 27% since Q2 2020.
In Latin America, North America, and Europe, consumers are far more negative – especially in the latter, where less than 1 in 5 expect things to improve.
Since Q2 2020, when 53% of global consumers believed the environment would improve, the number who say helping the environment is important remains largely unchanged. It’s a clear sign that while consumers don’t necessarily think things will improve, they still see the need to address the problem.
This view is shared around the world – particularly in Latin America where consumers are 27% more likely to say helping the environment is important than anywhere else.
The bottom line here is for governments and brands to continue taking eco-consciousness seriously. Consumers are already largely committed to recycling, reducing their plastic consumption, or buying energy efficient devices, so it’s up to brands to encourage these behaviors; sustainability is a shared responsibility.
And as long as consumers consider helping the environment a priority, then it’s more important than ever for brands to double down on these commitments too.
The environment isn’t just a ‘young people’s concern’
Climate change, sustainability, and general eco-consciousness has become a mainstay of younger consumers’ lifestyles.
It’s true in many ways; our USA data reveals young people’s number one fear is climate change and, worldwide, they’re slightly more likely to pay more for eco-friendly products than their older counterparts.
But they’re not alone.
Older consumers are almost on par with their younger counterparts for saying helping the environment is important – the key difference is how they approach the problem.
Things like changing to more sustainable energy providers or buying organic food/sustainable clothing are more prominent among Gen Z and millennials. Older generations, however, really stand out when it comes to recycling, being 24% more likely to say they always try to recycle than their younger counterparts. Our Zeitgeist research reveals this in more detail; 65% recycle and 56% are reducing their plastic use.
Down the line, our data suggests that more of these older consumers intend to ‘up their game’ in the future – making more of an attempt to be sustainable with their purchases, the food they eat, and the energy providers they use.
For brands who think eco-friendly messaging is something that’s going to hit harder with younger generations, it’s time for a rethink.
Remember, while the general consensus is that older generations will be less likely to experience the impact of climate change, many will be thinking of their children and grandchildren – they have as much of a stake in the planet’s future as younger consumers do.
Not everything has to be doom and gloom …
The discussion around climate change has a big influence on the way consumers think about how it will impact them and their future.
Take Q2 2020 as a prime example; 53% of all consumers expected things to get better, a mammoth 28% increase on Q1. Call it what you want; fewer planes in the sky, cars on the road, or boats in the ocean, there was an undeniable decrease in global CO2 emissions which, for a brief time, had consumers thinking more positively.
With that in mind, the reason consumers’ outlook has changed since then likely shares a relationship with the news surrounding climate change.
For media publishers, this is a tough balancing act – 1 in 5 consumers say their views on sustainability are most impacted by journalists or news presenters, making them an important source of information.
However, while people need to know the truth about climate change, always looking at the worst-case scenario can have a damaging impact on how consumers deal with the problem.
This isn’t about sugarcoating the situation, it’s about offering consumers a more nuanced view of the impact climate change will have – offering solutions at a time where there’s more than one problem on consumers’ minds.
… but brands need to remember to follow the science
At the same time, discussion around climate change faces a key challenge in the form of misinformation, meaning it can be difficult to get the point across to consumers about how serious the matter really is.
It’s a similar story to the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. Everytime we revisited the subject in our Zeitgeist data, consumers continually cited more research as an effective means of encouraging them to get the jab.
While there’s certainly a need to address the messaging and tone regarding climate change in the media, scientists still have the biggest impact on sustainable views – 46% of consumers say this. That should be a stark reminder for brands, governments, news services, and charities to lean on these individuals if they’re to better influence public opinion.
It’s also a sign for social media services to reevaluate how they manage misinformation. Banners offering consumers ways to learn more about the Covid-19 vaccine are commonplace on services like Instagram and Facebook, but Pinterest recently introduced a similar feature regarding climate change.
Age plays no role here, with scientists leading the way across every generation.
While India is the only exception by country, influence is split quite evenly between friends/family (51%), climate activists (48%), and scientists (46%).
It’s worth noting that the fears consumers have regarding climate change often skew personal; things that will affect everyday life like the increasing likelihood of severe weather conditions or the impact on natural resources, people’s health, and future generations.
As far as green consumerism is concerned, all of this needs to be taken into consideration. Marketing, government PSAs, and charity campaigns should all rely on scientifically backed research that appeals to consumers’ personal stake in combating climate change if they’re to get their message across.
Brands need to reconsider the cost of eco-consumerism
Right now, consumers are most likely to be recycling or cutting back on plastic. Older consumers tend to be more enthusiastic about the former, but the verdict on plastic is practically unanimous.
Brands seem to have got the message. The majority of UK supermarkets already charge for plastic bags, but these businesses should consider fully switching to paper alternatives, or offer recycling stations for single-use plastic.
In some cases, simply offering consumers a discount for reusing old bags, bottles, or containers could make all the difference.
And it’s getting a lot easier for consumers to do this. Not everyone will find sustainable living easy, so it’s up to brands to consider how they can reduce the knowledge gap and help consumers adapt.
Back in October, we delved into the topic of e-waste and found awareness to be a key barrier for recycling – just over a quarter said they were unaware of local places to recycle their products. Just recently, Google announced new features to tackle this problem head-on.
It’s a simple, but effective, example of how brands can make a difference.
It’s also worth stating that right now can be a difficult time for consumers to be eco-conscious.
Over two-thirds expect inflation to have a moderate/dramatic impact on their finances.
But it’s important to remember this doesn’t mean people will give up on it; after all, more would still rather pay more for eco-friendly products than not. Brands need to look at what consumers are doing to be sustainable right now, and think of ways to encourage this – without breaking the bank.
This is where things like loyalty or reward schemes come into play. They’re already popular with 1 in 3 consumers, but the added incentive to recycle items in exchange for in-store credit (or “points”) could appeal to consumers as pursestrings continue to tighten.
When given the chance, consumers will typically opt for ways to save money, but this doesn’t have to come at the cost of being green either. It’s important for brands to recognize this, and do all they can to help inform them of ways to be sustainable on a budget, while still advertising eco-friendly products for those willing to commit with their wallet.
Brands who can’t live up to their claims will lose out big time
The majority of consumers say national governments are most responsible for supporting sustainable initiatives (34%), consumers hold the second most (20%), and corporations third (13%).
But they still want brands to show their support, and it’s another thing entirely to be disingenuous about it. Companies have found themselves in hot water for failing to live up to their eco-friendly claims – and there’s now huge efforts to crack down on it.
The number one thing that consumers say would discourage them from buying from a brand is false sustainability claims. That means that greenwashing is more off-putting than having a bad reputation online.
Of course, the two could easily go hand-in-hand, but it’s worth stating again just how important this issue is to consumers; failing to live up to eco-friendly claims can damage a brand more than having a poor diversity record, or a history of treating staff poorly.
For brands where sustainability is a key part of their brand positioning, earning consumers’ trust is absolutely essential. The personal care brand, Yoppie, makes it clear how their products fit into this category, and even offers consumers guidance on how to challenge brands that might not be all they claim to be.
And if brands can’t back up their environmental commitments, then consumers are likely to catch them out.
Think back to International Women’s Day, where the Twitter bot, @PayGapApp, was quick to point out companies’ gender pay gap – leaving the door open for others to do the same regarding environmental claims.
There’s no real compromise here; 43% of consumers say brands should be authentic, and failing to recognize this will land brands in hot water.
It’s down to brands to show people that their trust is well-earned. It may shock some to hear that less than a third of consumers say they trust brands to follow through with their environmental claims.
As Patagonia CEO, Ryan Gellert, puts it “If you’re in the game of conservation, you’ve got to win every single day.”
Don’t let standards slip
With inflation and a cost of living crisis set to worsen over the coming months, it’s easy to imagine consumers will give up on the environment – or that brands shouldn’t waste their time with it.
But consumers will remain eco-conscious, and sustainability will still be an important part of a business’ marketing strategy. High-spending consumers will still be drawn to premium eco-friendly options. Those looking to cut down their spending will be reusing and recycling much more, allowing brands to engage in a way that combines eco-friendliness with thrift.
Brands can also play their part by switching to renewable energy, reducing the cost of eco-friendly products, and encouraging consumers to make sustainable choices.
Our data shows that this is something consumers of all shapes and sizes care about. What really matters is that brands reflect this and don’t backtrack on their commitments.