Will consumers ever shop based on sustainable behaviors?
By Mike Bellamente
As the concept of corporate sustainability matures, companies are striving even harder to optimize energy usage and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But the stakeholders who should value these achievements most (consumers) tend to concern themselves least. Does the average person shop for a pair of jeans thinking, “Who made these jeans and what are they doing to reduce their environmental impact?” No.
In a 2011 study conducted by OgilvyEarth, 70 percent of Americans surveyed said they would rather cure cancer than save the environment. Understandably, curing cancer is a much more relatable concept than “saving” the planet, but as long as environmental issues such as climate change are considered just another cause—as opposed to being necessary for self-preservation—motivating consumers to change their consumption habits and buying behavior will be fruitless.
For some forward-thinking companies (Levi’s, Unilever, and Timberland for example), communicating with consumers at the product level about climate change and natural resource conservation is the logical next step in moving the needle on sustainability. Setting emissions targets and putting the squeeze on suppliers to operate more efficiently is one thing, but real progress on sustainability can only be achieved when consumers become part of the solution.
So why aren’t more companies devoting resources to educating consumers on adopting sustainable consumption behaviors (e.g. reduce, reuse, recycle)? For one, the profit motive is not strong; it might increase brand loyalty and reputation to the extent that people find value in being given the tools to more easily embrace eco-consciousness, but, unlike the direct cost-saving benefits of installing energy efficient lighting, asking consumers to purchase less of a product is a surefire way to erode market share and lower profits.
In the report Consumer 2020: Reading the Signs, consulting giant Deloitte makes the argument that over the next 10 years consumers will have incorporated sustainable behaviors into their lives and will demand sustainable products and practices. The piece goes onto say, however, that the shift toward sustainable consumption will likely be the result of consumer industries engaging consumers to change their consumption patterns and innovating to meet tomorrow’s demand.
To support industry-driving sustainable consumption, Jeff Rice, director of sustainability at Walmart, recently pointed out that although the company’s supplier sustainability scorecard has proven successful, consumer demand for such initiatives remains tepid at best. “We actually wish we were seeing more of a push from consumers on our sustainability efforts,” says Rice.
Similarly, when asked to detail the obstacles to educating consumers about a product’s carbon footprint, Nike’s director of climate and energy Greg Chambers noted that, for performance apparel products, consumers are most concerned with price, comfort, and quality. A company’s carbon performance might not even be among the top 10 things that consumers care about today, so it makes little sense to market it to them as part of a product’s value offering. Tying environmental integrity to product quality is one foreseeable path to getting there, but this assumes the average consumer perceives environmental performance as a benefit.
This brings to light a separate quandary on the idea that companies might progressively take on the role of sustainability educator. In an age when consumer attention is fast fleeting, marketers are beholden to whatever approach sells the most product. Companies, therefore, tend to limit the disclosure of their performance on social and environmental issues to their corporate websites and sustainability reports, not at the product level or even brand level unless it in some way represents the ethos of their targeted demographic (Timberland’s Earthkeeper line of apparel, for example, aligns directly with the values of the typical outdoor enthusiast).
With America’s hearty appetite for goods and gadgets, it’s tough to conceive of a time when people would voluntarily reduce their consumption rates or alter their buying behavior simply to reduce their personal environmental impact. (As it stands today, consumer discretionary spending is still largely seen as an indicator of the health of the economy).
In other parts of the world, however, promising trends are blossoming around the concept of sustainable consumption. In Britain—a pioneer in product carbon labeling—nine out of 10 households bought products with carbon labels in 2010. In other areas of Europe, a range of policies are in place to foster the development of resource-efficient products and raise consumer awareness on the concept of sustainability. Within the United States, however, increased regulation would conceivably be the least palatable way for companies to engage consumers on sustainable consumption. All the more reason, it would seem, for them to initiate the conversation on their own terms.
Mike Bellamente is project director of Climate Counts, a consumer outreach organization that rates corporations on how well they measure, reduce, and report their greenhouse gas emissions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.