Behavior Change
The Widening Attitude/Behavior Gap:
The Curse of an Improving Economy?

Socially and environmentally conscious attitudes are gaining ground, but corresponding purchases and behaviors are stagnant or heading south — and the rebounding economy may be the culprit. That’s the latest finding from Shelton Group’s seventh annual Eco Pulse™ study, released this week. Eco Pulse polls American consumers each year to track shifts in their attitudes, purchases and behaviors related to sustainability.

“Last year, an improving economy seemed to be stimulating environmental engagement and green product purchases, and all signs pointed to an increase in market adoption and significant sales growth for green products. But that’s not the case,” said Suzanne Shelton, CEO of Shelton Group. “We’re seeing a continued shift toward more pro-environmental attitudes, along with increasing concerns and feelings of eco-guilt that should, logically, be leading to more sustainable purchasing. But purchases and actions are not lining up with professed beliefs. And we think the improving economy is to blame.”

The study found that with the exception of recycling, self-reported sustainable behaviors and product purchases are generally stagnant or down across the board — from home energy and water-conservation habits and product purchases, to transportation activities, to environmentally friendly cleaning, personal care and food product purchases.

“We think the improving economy shifted attention away from conservation and frugality,” Shelton said. “But the good news for green brands is that 70 percent of Americans are searching for greener products, and corporate commitments to sustainability are becoming a baseline criterion for product consideration. Companies that are doing a good job of ‘owning’ a sustainability issue or that are known for environmentally responsible practices are becoming appealing to more and more consumers.”

Brands, using their power for good ...

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The Group also says brands can play a key role in reversing this dropoff in more conscious behaviors not just by walking their sustainability talk, but by driving home their importance in more meaningful ways.

“Brands can help turn around these downward trends by doing a better job at making the connections required to shift sustainability into a true lower-level need position in the American consumer psyche so that greener behaviors really stick, regardless of what’s happening in the economy,” said Lee Ann Head, Shelton Group’s VP of research. "We can do this by better linking sustainable behaviors with recognized lower-level needs, like safety, health, security, and positioning sustainable solutions more favorably against less sustainable alternatives.”

The study also shows a continuing trend in the way Americans identify green products, relying less on packaging call-outs and more on overall corporate reputation and certifications. Half the population said that a company’s environmental reputation impacts their decisions as to whether or not to buy its products, and this impact is even stronger for those searching for greener products. Specifically the study found:

  • Over a quarter of the market rely on certifications in their identification and selection of green products, but almost 30 percent of Americans said they know a product is green based on the company’s environmental record.
  • When asked the things that most strongly contribute to a good reputation in terms of a company’s sustainability, the study shows increased emphasis on improving product content, such as removing chemicals of concern or adding recycled content, and reducing waste. However, corporate social responsibility initiatives also have a strong impact, as evidenced by unaided recall results. Many brands with good reputations in this area are not technically sustainable, but have successfully adopted environmental, health or human service initiatives that seem to be giving them a “green halo.”
  • Respondents were asked what they would do if a company that makes their favorite toilet paper and advertised itself as environmentally responsible were to receive a government fine for failing emissions standards or for polluting a nearby river. Results remained consistent with previous years, with almost 70 percent saying they’d stop buying the product. Specifically, 50 percent said they’d stop buying, and 19 percent would not only stop buying, but also encourage others to do the same. Only 30 percent said they would likely continue to buy the product.
  • While sustainable product purchase drivers can vary across product categories, results showed that the top two drivers (natural resource conservation, 25 percent; health and safety, 23 percent) are the same as they were five years ago — the last time the study asked this question.

“We hope these findings help companies understand how important it is to define and tell their corporate sustainability story,” Shelton said. “By leveraging the issues consumers care about most, companies can get a competitive advantage while doing the right thing for the environment.”

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