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The 'last mile' of consumer sustainability behavior

Companies are learning how consumer intentions align with their actions and how sustainability executives can influence those behaviors for the better.

bamboo toothbrush

Consumer trend surveys show a shift towards an environmental mindset among shoppers but they need to start putting their money where their mouth is.//Image courtesy of Unsplash 

These days, it’s hard to argue that sustainability is a niche consumer interest. A vast majority of consumers worldwide believe we need to consume less, according to research by GlobeScan.

More to the point, 57 percent of consumers in that survey were willing to pay more for sustainable products. But only about a quarter of them actually made any sustainable changes to their lifestyle or consumption. So what gives?

"There’s this really marked intention-action gap when we’re asking people to change their behaviors to be more sustainable," said Katherine White, professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia.

White shared her research on sustainable consumption during GreenBiz 21. She was among industry leaders from Amazon and Procter & Gamble, as well as nonprofit executives, who shared insights on the trends in sustainable consumption. Here are three takeaways from the session:

1. Attitude has shifted, but behavior lags

Across the board, indicators for consumer interest in sustainable products are up, according to the GlobeScan survey. The 2020 results, for example, showed that 73 percent of consumers wanted to reduce the impact they have on the environment by a large amount, up almost 10 percentage points from the year prior.

During the session, Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan, described it as a "remarkable shift" in consumer attitude that bodes well for the sustainable products market. But he was quick to underline the shortcomings of that progress.

"There is still a gap between our desire to change and what we’re actually doing, but we do see significant movements happening across the world," he said.

White’s research in behavioral science looks into what levers could be most effective in convincing consumers to align their choices with their concern for the planet. 

A fundamental truth for sustainable products: Consumers’ top concerns are still performance and price.

"This is a real challenge for marketers, for organizations, for public policymakers," she said. "We really need to understand, what are the key drivers of behavior change in particular?"

White identified a few factors that stakeholders can focus on to shift behavior — social influence (in other words, peer pressure), habit formation, individual values, emotional buy-in and tangible outcomes. 

But ultimately, no one should think about hitting consumers with all of those efforts at once, White said. The shifts are more likely to be gradual.

2. Price and performance are still king

Todd Cline, as director for Procter & Gamble’s North America fabric care research and development, is trying to focus consumers on one tiny change that could drastically slash the climate impact of his company’s product: Wash their clothes in cold water.

Cline said what consumers do with Tide, one of the company's sub-brands, once they take it off the shelf accounts for two-thirds of the product’s carbon footprint. The biggest chunk of that is the energy used to heat the water in the washing machine.

But Cline knows if he wants consumers to change to cold, the performance can’t suffer. So his plan is simple: "Make products that work great when consumers use them on cold," he said.

This highlights a fundamental truth for sustainable products: Consumers’ top concerns are still performance and price. So sustainable products must tick those two boxes before showing off their climate bona fides. 

Adam Werbach, global lead for sustainable shopping at Amazon, knows this well. He led the development of a "Climate Pledge Friendly" label on the site that uses external certifications to direct customers to the most sustainable products.

The experience so far has shown Werbach that customers, even at Amazon’s eco-conscious Whole Foods, primarily seek out price and performance before considering sustainability. 

But the "Climate Pledge Friendly" label can be a quick, easy way for them to make that decision.

"Customers like the cognitive load being taken off them," he said.

3. Less (information) can be more

The success of a simple label for Amazon speaks to another important tactic for nudging customers to more sustainable options: Sometimes less information is better.

The average consumer, according to White, doesn't have the time or interest to know all the details on ingredients, manufacturing or packaging. They just want to know it’s not going to harm the planet.

"At the end of the day, if it's really quick and easy and enjoyable and pleasant, I’m going to do it," White said.

That’s where labels can help. Doug Gatlin, CEO of Green Seal, said his company has worked to simplify the way it communicates its own sustainability certifications.

"It can really be difficult to communicate the various attributes to the consumer," he said.

So rather than listing 20 or more claims on one label, Green Seal developed a "compass" that identifies four main categories — water, waste, health and climate — and acts as a shorthand to evaluate products.

Cline keeps this in mind, too, as Procter & Gamble refines its own packaging and labeling.

"If we can make it simple and make it so it's a great experience for people, they’ll adopt the behavior and stick with it," he said.

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