Most sustainability practitioners believe customers will reward a company for doing the right thing. We know it’s a complex story and that price, accessibility of product and perceived efficacy all affect shoppers’ choices. In general, however, we trust that customers will pick sustainable solutions if they are easy to find and price differences are negligible.
And there is evidence that consumers do prefer to buy sustainable products. NYU Stern’s landmark study found that 50 percent of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products. The study is based on what consumers actually bought — not what they said they would do.
Still, we were curious to explore if there was more to this story. Clearly, some customers reward companies by buying sustainable products, but did that hold true for more specific aspects of sustainability, such as climate change? If two products were equal and were equally priced, would a perception of climate action by the company make the difference?
If two products were equal and were equally priced, would a perception of climate action by the company make the difference?
These seemed like worthwhile questions so, pre-COVID (October–November), Valutus launched two separate types of surveys to find the answers. The first of these used Google Survey panels and totaled more than 2,200 respondents over several rounds of surveys.
Consider this question:
Two products are equal, including their prices. One is made by a company that is a climate leader, while the other company is average on climate. Are you:
a) Almost sure to buy from the climate leader
b) More likely to buy from the climate leader
c) Equally likely to buy from either
d) Less likely to buy from the climate leader
e) Almost sure not to buy from climate leader
We assumed that some significant portion would say they were more likely to buy from the climate leader, and a good chunk from the average company, and that turned out to be right: 40 percent of consumers said they were either more likely or almost sure to choose the climate change leader’s product.
We also thought that very few people would be less likely to buy from the climate leader. But that was wrong. Incredibly, our survey found that about 20 percent said they would avoid buying the more sustainable company’s product — that it reduced their desire to buy it, despite it being equal, including in price.
Was that result real? To guard against it being a fluke, Valutus commissioned over a half-dozen surveys asking the same question, sometimes with minor variations to see if the results changed significantly. They didn’t. About a fifth of respondents continued to say they would punish the climate leader by eschewing their product. (We also asked the question without using the word "climate," asking instead about "environmental and social issues." When we did, slightly more people avoided the leader’s product.)
As an added check on the results, we then repeated the question using Survey Monkey, wondering if a different audience pool would make a difference.
While the results indeed differed — the number avoiding the climate leader’s product dropped to 8 percent — a lot of people still said they would avoid buying from the climate leader. Even this smaller number was more than most people had told us to expect beforehand.
This led to two key questions:
- Why did people say they would avoid the climate leader?
- Why the difference between the two survey results?
Question No. 1 probably needs further exploration but when we asked people why they chose the answer they did, the most common reason cited was their belief in climate change. In other words, people seemed to be taking their political beliefs to market.
We take "belief in climate change" as a proxy for political beliefs rather than being uncertain about the facts of climate science, as the products were equal by definition. Even if respondents weren’t sure whether the climate crisis is real, why would they avoid the leader if buying from them had no downsides and cost nothing extra? Opposition to climate action seems a more likely answer than scientific uncertainty.
This was consistent with the data. For example, over half the Survey Monkey respondents who were less likely to buy from the climate leader said they were somewhat conservative or very conservative; for Google respondents, the fraction was just over 40 percent. In both cases, conservatives were much less likely to favor the climate leader than either liberals or those who reported being neither conservative nor liberal.
(Note: Overall, about 30 percent of Google respondents said they were somewhat conservative or very conservative, while 33 percent chose somewhat liberal or very liberal and 19 percent preferred not to say. Survey Monkey respondents came in at 34 percent somewhat or very conservative and 32 percent somewhat or very liberal, with 9 percent preferring not to say.)
On Question No. 2 — the variance between surveys — we considered several possibilities:
- Both the income and education levels of the Google respondents were higher than the national average. We don’t think this explains the difference in results, however. While the relationship between income and support for climate action is uncertain (some studies suggest support increases with income, some suggest it decreases), there is good evidence that people with more education tend to be more concerned about climate change.
- In terms of gender, age and geography, Google and Survey Monkey both weighted respondents to be representative of the U.S. population. Survey Monkey additionally weights by race and education within geographical areas.
- Survey Monkey’s respondents self-select to take surveys to benefit a charity while Google survey data is from visitors to commercial websites.
We think this last point — the difference in respondent pool intake methodology used by Google and Survey Monkey — is the most likely explanation for the disparity in results.
While the education, income, age and other demographics of the Survey Monkey audience looked like a representative cross-section of the U.S. general population (in some ways better than the Google audience), a group of people volunteering to fill out polls in order to support a charity may have different views from those being required to take a survey in order to access premium content.
We therefore hypothesize that the Survey Monkey results likely underestimate the percentage of U.S. citizens that say they would "punish" a company for leading in climate change. (It’s also possible that the true percentage is between the Google results and the Survey Monkey results, with the Google results overestimating it. But regardless of whether it’s 10 percent or 20 percent, it’s more than we — and others we talked to — had expected.)
What does all this mean?
For one thing, it means there is good news: About 40 percent of people say they will reward companies that lead in climate change by preferring their products.
But we are now aware that a chunk of people are actually against buying from climate leaders. A significant portion of people who are politically against climate action say they are taking their beliefs to the market. That is not good news, and we will need to come up with a strategy to address it.
We’re living in a divided country and echoes of that division appear to be influencing purchase decisions. Does that mean there is no benefit from being a climate leader? No. All surveys made it clear that being a climate leader is still a significant net-positive with customers.
Yet it does require thinking carefully about how you communicate, and to whom. As painful as it is, we know some people who oppose efforts to fight the climate crisis actually will shun you for exhibiting climate leadership.
That’s not how it should be. But, if that’s how it is, at least now we know.