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Behavior Change
How Can We Direct Consumers Toward More Impactful Sustainable Behaviors?

Research from Sustainable Brands and Ipsos reveals a global misperception on the most impactful sustainable behaviors — with a belief that recycling will yield bigger benefits than eating plant-based diets, increasing energy efficiency, and 58 more impactful choices.

Recent Sustainable Brands (SB) research, conducted in partnership with Ipsos, has shown that in the US, 96 percent of people say they try to behave in ways that protect the planet, its people, and its resources at least some of the time. This shows us that sustainability is already embedded in the mainstream consciousness; and we don’t need to change peoples’ values as much as we need to help them follow through on actually engaging in sustainable behaviors.

Not only do people want to live sustainably, they understand their power as consumers to influence brands to take responsibility as well. In the US, 69 percent of respondents agreed that they believe they can influence companies to do better by buying from them when they do. Globally, 69 percent say they try to purchase products from brands that act responsibly, even if it means spending more.

Despite good intentions, there continues to be an “intention-action gap” — where people intend to behave sustainably but are not following through with their actions. In the US, SB asked consumers the lead barriers to living more sustainably. The most common response is, “It’s too expensive” — which is a common barrier to purchase overall, especially with the current socio-economic issues and recent inflation levels in the US. Expense is also a barrier to sustainable living globally, with many reflecting a sense of being in “survival mode”: Recent interviews for Ipsos’ Essentials Research showed that 2 in 3 people globally are concerned about being able to pay their bills.

The second barrier is that people “don’t know where to start.” With the severity of the growing climate crisis and the numerous ways in which unsustainable behaviors are embedded in our society, there’s a pervading sense of overwhelm and paralysis around what a single person can do. The third most common response was “It’s too inconvenient”; this metric increased over ten points from December 2020 to December 2021.

Decoding effective methods of driving consumer behavior change

Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.

We think about this in two ways: The first is a sense of emotional inconvenience. With everything going on in the world — from war, to inflation, to gun control, to COVID — sustainability may be one more thing that people don’t feel like they have the brainspace or emotional energy to consider in their day-to-day actions and purchases. The second is around logistics — what is available and on-shelf. From this information, we advise brand leaders to focus on making sustainable behaviors as easy and accessible as possible through their products, services and ability to influence consumers; so, more sustainable living can entail encouraging small, incremental and rewarding changes in a person’s routine.

Environmental issues often have taken a back seat to more immediate threats to personal health and safety. Globally, out of a list of challenges they’re facing, between 8 and 28 percent respondents ranked Environmental or Climate as their top concern. Still, in a survey of top global economies, 83 percent agree that “We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly” — showing a core public understanding of the situation’s urgency. This number has been growing consistently over the past decade, though the US continues to lag behind — with only 71 percent agreeing to this statement in 2021. In many of these markets, an increase in awareness occurred at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, between 2019 and 2020. It is possible that the health concern made people re-evaluate their priorities, which resulted in even higher concern for the environment.

Even if they are motivated to change their behaviors, people do not always know what actions to take. In the US, when asked which behaviors are the most important to acting on sustainability, the largest percentage of respondents choose recycling. Towards the bottom of the list is eating more plant-based foods. However, eating a plant-based or alternative protein diet has been shown to have a much larger impact than recycling. Globally, similar misconceptions exist. People tend to attribute more weight to things such as recycling, avoiding packaging, and using more durable items than what their impact on the environment should dictate. People ranked Recycling as the behavior with the greatest impact, whereas research has indicated it is 60th most impactful in a list of behaviors — lagging far behind more impactful behaviors including shifting to public transport, eating plant-based, and updating your home to be more energy-efficient.

After decades of widespread messaging and infrastructure built around recycling, it’s no wonder it is top of mind for consumers. In a high-level probe into what sustainability-focused product labels consumers are drawn to, in the example categories of washing liquid and personal electronics, options with “Packaging made with recycled materials” was the most preferred — having more weight than CarbonNeutral, B-Corp, 1% for the Planet, and Fair Trade labels.

If people are drawn to embracing the sustainable behaviors that they most understand and are most present in mainstream society, there is a critical role for brands to both provide ways to engage in these sustainable behaviors and to put more focus around the most impactful sustainable behaviors through products and messaging.

Sustainable Brands’ Socio-Cultural Trend Tracking Research is an ongoing research series, focused on tracking changing drivers and behaviors of mainstream consumers around the intersection of brands and sustainable living — including evolving attitudes related to consumption and environmental and societal issues.