Behavior Change
Global Consumers Say ‘Save the Planet’; Some Economic Growth Can Wait

60% of consumers surveyed agree protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it slows economic growth. But as we’ve seen for years, while consumers widely agree on the need for sustainability, behavior is slow to change.

Global consumers agree the environment should be an economic priority — even if it leads to slower growth — and companies that fail to adapt their business models will face consumer backlash, according to findings of the latest ING International Survey.

A majority (60 percent) of US respondents* agree with the suggestion that slower growth would be a price worth paying to protect the environment; while, despite price being of key importance when shopping for homewares, 53 percent of US consumers agree that companies that don’t take steps to become more sustainable and demonstrate that effort will experience consumer backlash over time.  

The results come amid growing calls to action from movements such as Greta Thunberg’s ongoing global climate change campaign, and the proposed Green New Deal.

Slow to react

Many consumers say they already support a movement towards a circular economy by reducing, reusing and recycling products. The survey also suggests consumers are willing to bear some of the cost of sustainability. Repairing broken appliances makes sense for half of US consumers, if the repair costs up to 40 percent of a new replacement.

But attitudes towards a circular economy differ across countries. In the US, 39 percent said the offer of a financial incentive wouldn’t change their recycling behavior — a similar number to those who said so in Turkey (36 percent), but a small group compared to the 63 percent who said no to a reward in Luxembourg. Discrepancies in local circular activities may be partially explained by established local norms — both cultural and social — and access to recycling and repair facilities, as well as contextual influences such as how fast items can be repaired and the perceived value of doing so.

Most respondents also acknowledged the problem of overconsumption in their home countries — with 64 percent of US, 69 percent of European, and 60 percent of Australian consumers saying people in their country are excessively focused on consumption.

In ING’s 2018 IIS survey on sustainability, consumers pointed to cost and a lack of knowledge as key barriers to changing their behavior. This year’s findings verify the challenge of turning attitudes into action. Despite one-in-three (34 percent) naming climate change as the greatest environmental challenge we face, only half (53 percent) say they always separate their waste at home, lagging behind the European average of 76 percent. A quarter (25 percent) of Americans say they never separate their waste.

At the same time, consumers recognize that initiatives from businesses and broader structural change will be needed if individual efforts are to have a coordinated impact. 44 percent of US respondents agree that supermarkets should not provide any single-use plastic packaging or plastic bags, and the perception is that businesses have been slow to respond to such consumer demands. Less than a third (30 percent) of US respondents could name a company that has changed how it operated to begin enabling reuse and repair of its products; more and more examples are emerging — companies including IKEA, Interface, Mud Jeans and Patagonia all have product take-back and repair programs — but perhaps the public has been slow to catch on or to seek out these enhanced offerings.

Increased consumer engagement with, understanding and support of companies’ sustainability efforts was the impetus behind the creation earlier this year of SB’s Brands for Good collaboratory — a growing coalition of consumer-facing brands joining forces to find ways to make sustainable brands and lifestyles more aspirational to consumers through the power of advertising and media.

“While it’s clear that awareness of environmental challenges is high, this has not yet been met with a corresponding level of behavioral change,” said Jessica Exton, Behavioral Scientist at ING. “While consumers are conscious of the urgency of the problem at hand; our survey results suggest, unsurprisingly, that awareness and information doesn’t automatically translate into changed habits or behaviors. The short- and long-term impacts of context-dependent choices aren’t easy to calculate, making decision-making on a day-to-day basis challenging.

“And changes can’t only be behavioral. Sustainability is a macroeconomic and systemic issue, which comes with broader prioritization, cooperation and measurement challenges. For the circular economy to work effectively, it is fundamental that all stakeholders fully participate, demonstrating a collective action problem. We need coordination of individual efforts to provide assurance that everyday efforts to repair a bicycle or reuse plastic bags will have their intended effect.”

* Half of survey respondents were asked this question

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