Regardless whether consumers are acquainted with sustainability or can supply a formal definition for it, we find that they often point to words and phrases that reference the greater good. Recurring terms such as "responsibility" and "doing the right thing" emerged from interviews as ways consumers describe achieving the greater good and linking economic, social and environmental issues important to them. Thus we find that sustainability is reflected at the consumer level in myriad behaviors, from purchases and non-purchases to voting and volunteerism.
The notion of responsibility underscores the idea of connectedness, and addresses consumer beliefs that the right thing in one area has effects in other areas. Consumers say today that for something to be truly responsible in one way, it should not cause great detriment in another.
As we found in our Sustainability 2013 study, today‘s consumer sustainability is not simply about living green and saving the earth. While consumers associate many meanings with the term, the sustainability mindset involves a greater awareness of practices and products beyond green attributes, including those perceived to affect the greater social and economic good. The notion of responsibility as doing the right thing has particular resonance with consumers in that it symbolizes an underlying value that guides their views about sustainability.
As a value-laden ideal, responsibility provides a more meaningful call to action for all those in society -- consumers, businesses and governments alike -- to participate in the greater good. Consumers concede that doing the right thing, although a wonderfully simplistic concept to grasp, is complex because of its varied and far-reaching implications. Responsibility, therefore, is aspirational and often a subjective decision to do the better thing in a context without a perfectly responsible solution.
So, how consumers think about companies and their products in terms of sustainability can be divided into four zones, or what we refer to at The Hartman Group as the Four Zones of Responsibility.
- The Personal Zone refers to personal benefits to the consumer. Key dimensions within the Personal Zone include household finances, personal safety and health, quality and feeling good about purchases.
- The Social Zone refers to human and animal welfare and improving physical and emotional well-being. Within this zone, consumers consider key dimensions such as a company’s employment practices, community involvement, fair trade or treatment of animals.
- The zone most commonly associated with sustainability is the Environmental Zone and refers to the equilibrium of the planet and stewardship of its resources: water, air, earth. Important dimensions of the Environmental Zone include energy consumption, waste disposal and resource preservation.
- The Economic Zone is about the responsible distribution of monetary resources, jobs and profits. Key dimensions include monetary circulation, ownership and scale.
While it is helpful to separate these zones from an analytical perspective, consumers flow seamlessly between discussions of the different zones. In particular, attributes in “sustainability zones” can ladder up to personal benefits (and vice versa). Those sustainability attributes that most clearly cue personal benefit to consumers often are regarded as the most relevant. The more consumers evolve in the World of Sustainability, the more interconnected the zones appear.
What does this mean?
At the heart of the Four Zones of Responsibility is the central notion of “feeling good about buying.” When Sustainability and Personal Benefits meet, consumers are given the opportunity to “feel good” about the products they’re using. This feeling is much more profound than when consumers buy a product that is just good for themselves. Their purchase has allowed them to do a bit of good and express their moral values. It gives them a moment of happiness and self-worth in the middle of the most mundane activities. Those less evolved in the World of Sustainability will “feel good” about buying sustainable products, but they won’t feel guilty when they don’t; the Core (those consumers most intensely involved in the World of Sustainability) will feel good when they do, but they will feel guilty when they don’t.
While concepts and ideas such as "local," "Fair Trade," "cruelty-free" and "transparency" can be said to be fully operating in the cultural domain, the consumer notion of doing the right thing for the common good is an even stronger guiding principle that establishes hope, even in what seem to be hard times. Importantly, we see consumers seeking out those products, services and retail outlets that they feel represent forward-thinking, higher domain experiences within which sustainability has profound connections at personal, social and global levels.
Going forward, what we find fascinating -- and of great value to manufacturers, retailers and service providers -- is that many core beliefs and aspirations surrounding sustainability behaviors represent personal journeys for consumers: These philosophically and objectively driven travels are inspired by not only individual hope for higher quality experiences and standards of living for themselves and their communities, but are quickly becoming a broadly focused expectation to find such qualities reflected in the stores, employees, brands and products they buy, interact with and use on an everyday basis.
Photocollage by GreenBiz Group