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Behavior Change
Economic Uncertainty, Systemic Inequity Preserving Intention-Action Gap

A recent study shows that people across the socioeconomic spectrum care about climate action; but taking that action remains cost-prohibitive for lower-income groups.

A new report analyzing data from Deloitte’s Sustainable Action Index confirms that consumers care about sustainability; but action may only be an option for affluent individuals.

The latest study from the international professional services network investigates whether sustainable behavior is a luxury; and if so, how to bridge the intention-to-action gap. The report, which tracks attitudes about sustainability across 24 countries, indicates softening support for climate action and fewer consumers making sustainable choices.

Over the past two years, most measures of sustainable behavior have declined; as well as the number of respondents who are concerned over climate change:

  • The percentage of respondents saying they adopted more climate-friendly activities fell from 65 percent to 53 percent between Sept 2021 and March 2023

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    Respondents who said they feel anxious or worried over climate change dipped from 57 percent to 43 percent during that same period

Self-disclosed income is the primary indicator of sustainable attitudes and behaviors, suggesting systemic socioeconomic barriers to sustainability.

“The decline in sentiment coincided with an inflationary event many consumers had never experienced before,” Deloitte Global Consumer Industry Leader Leon Pieters explained to Sustainable Brands® via email. “So, many consumers rationally chose what was sustainable for their short-term pocketbooks over what was long term for the planet — which is emblematic of our more significant collective, short-term mindset challenge.”

But still, a majority of respondents believe climate change is an emergency — a trend virtually unchanged over the past year and a half.

“Climate consciousness should be expected to wax and wane as households grapple with emerging challenges and trade-offs,” the report reads. “But make no mistake: It is no fad, and we do not see a cratering of support for climate action. Whether you’re a leader of business or government, large numbers of your customers, workers and constituents are prioritizing environmental considerations — even in the face of numerous uncertainties.”

Diminished sustainable behaviors are linked to more than a price trendline: Consumers are not only showing less willingness to pay a “green premium” for sustainable products and activities; they’re also less likely to take part in advocacy. Fewer respondents report they push for sustainability in their workplaces or say they’d be willing to switch jobs to work for a more sustainable employer.

“Deloitte data suggests personal economic conditions profoundly shape the breadth and depth of sustainable behaviors,” the report reads. “Respondents who perceive themselves to be ‘high income’ are more likely to engage in a variety of sustainable behaviors. Conversely, respondents who self-identify as lower or middle income and those who say their personal financial situation has worsened in the last year are less likely.”

And yet, results don’t suggest that recent economic turmoil explains the variation in sustainable behavior and attitudes — rather, that it may be based in deeper, systemic economic divides. For example, lower- and middle-income respondents are much less likely to actively advocate for climate or environmental issues or to support climate action in the workplace.

This does not mean, however, that the more affluent care more about climate change than those with fewer means; the number of respondents reporting anxiety over climate change is fairly consistent, regardless of income. The results show that people across the socioeconomic spectrum care about climate action; but taking that action often remains cost-prohibitive for lower-income groups.

“Widespread demand for [sustainable products and services] can help fuel innovation and drive down costs,” Pieters said. “Without it, some products might remain niche items that only appeal to certain groups. Innovators that see and foster demand from consumers will increasingly prioritize sustainability to the point where these goods and services gain a greater market share and become more easily accessible to everyone who seeks them.”

The persistent intention-to-action gap indicates that sustainable behavior change is far from just. To exacerbate matters, affluent consumers who practice sustainable behaviors tend to emit more than lower-income individuals and are also less willing than others to make changes in high-emitting behaviors.

As the report points out: “Without opportunities and meaningful participation from across the socioeconomic spectrum, simply encouraging those with higher incomes to ‘do more’ could risk entrenching existing systemic biases and inequalities — likely making the goals of climate equity and a just transition to a low-carbon economy even more difficult to achieve.”

Addressing climate change will require systems-level transformations across energy, food, mobility, heavy industry and more — but individuals still play a large collective role.

“Individual and collective advocacy for government policies and workplace actions to address climate change can help enable broader, systemic impacts,” Pieters said. “That’s why personal efforts to live a more sustainable life matter; and why leaders should understand how and why people are taking actions in their personal choices, workplaces and civic engagement.”

Companies can play a key role in making sustainable actions and attitudes more attainable — including, Pieters said, creating accessible education and training programs for employees; or creating channels that encourage workers to raise concerns and ideas for operating more sustainably. Consumer-facing companies are positioned to scale sustainable goods and services with the aim of becoming the first choices based on quality and price.

“Lower-income individuals face barriers to engaging in sustainable actions,” Pieters concluded. “That’s why it’s so important that companies and governments play a crucial role in implementing strategies and incentives to ensure sustainable actions are achievable for all income groups.”