Rachel Whitacre and Steven Naert
Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
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
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
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
Despite good intentions, there continues to be an “intention-action
— 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
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
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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
Towards the bottom of the list is eating more plant-based foods. However, eating
or alternative protein diet has been shown to have a much larger impact than
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
eating plant-based, and updating your home to be more energy-efficient.
After decades of widespread
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
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
Published Jul 13, 2022 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST