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Talking about sustainability today is complex. Exposure to news about sustainability-related topics is translating into consumers’ increased ability to define sustainability in more nuanced terms.
Consumer understanding of sustainability is growing, moving toward increasing sophistication in the links they see between a range of related issues. The reality of climate change has intensified for U.S. consumers through a series of natural disasters affecting big cities and smaller rural communities alike, and the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed calls for racial justice have drawn attention to the interconnectedness of individuals and communities.
Given the mounting problems facing the planet and its global citizens, it comes as no surprise that consumer sentiment for real change has significantly increased. And consumers’ message is loud and clear: they are tired of words lacking the backing of substantive action.
The Hartman Group’s Sustainability 2021: Environment and Society in Focus report finds that consumers recognize the need for large-scale action and place the most responsibility for a sustainable future with entities seen as powerful enough to make a difference — large companies and governments.
There is no clear consensus regarding top-level responsibility (ranked first/second) as consumers place this onus on large companies (57%), governments (54%) and individuals (42%) in nearly equal numbers. However, large companies and government are more often ranked in second or third place in terms of responsibility, suggesting that consumers believe them to be in a better position to effect large-scale changes.
Sustainability gains a strong voice at point of purchase
Our report reveals that 44% of consumers say they are willing to drastically change their lifestyles to live in a more sustainable way. That number more than doubles among Core consumers (those consumers most engaged in the World of Sustainability): 93% of Core consumers say they are committed to taking different types of actions to make their lifestyles more environmentally friendly.
Purchase decisions are a key mechanism through which consumers act on their sustainability values.
About a third of consumers (32%) say their purchase decisions have the greatest impact on society, consistent with what was reported in 2019. This falls behind voting decisions (44%) but is seen as more effective than direct involvement with one’s local community (25%).
While sustainability is still not a consistent purchase consideration for most consumers, it has been steadily making its way into their product selection thought processes. More than a quarter of consumers say they always or usually base their purchases on sustainability, an increase of 11 points over the last 14 years and up 4 points just from 2019.
The bottom line: Authentic commitment with demonstrable progress, not greenwashing
Our research makes a powerful case for companies to take action on a range of sustainability issues and to be open and honest about their practices.
Across the board, consumers see a role for companies in sustainability and believe that they should work to address a range of environmental and social issues, including pollution and climate change, supporting the national economy, implementing good labor practices and working to reduce hunger and poverty.
They see a variety of paths businesses could take to act on these issues, but they particularly focus on packaging innovations to reduce waste, employment practices, and investment in less harmful products and services.
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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company’s associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.
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