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81% of Consumers Say They Will Make Personal Sacrifices to Address Social, Environmental Issues

Global consumers feel a personal accountability to address social and environmental issues and look to companies as partners in progress, according to findings from the 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study, released today.

Global consumers feel a personal accountability to address social and environmental issues and look to companies as partners in progress, according to findings from the 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study, released today.

Near-universal in their demands for companies to act responsibly, nine-in-10 consumers expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues. Global consumers echo that high standard in their own lives and shopping behavior: 84 percent of consumers globally say they seek out responsible products whenever possible, though 81 percent cite availability of these products as the largest barrier to not purchasing more.

The study, a follow-up to the 2011 and 2013 global studies on consumer attitudes, perceptions and behaviors around corporate social responsibility (CSR), was conducted by Cone Communications and independent marketing analytics specialist, Ebiquity. The research reflects the sentiments of nearly 10,000 citizens in nine of the largest countries in the world by GDP: the United States, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, India and Japan.

“The research has revealed an increasingly sophisticated consumer,” says Jennifer Ciuffo Clark, research director at Ebiquity. “Global consumers have high demands for companies to address social and environmental issues, but they now also understand they have an obligation to make change, as well. It’s critical for companies to understand the nuanced drivers, barriers and opportunities that resonate among discerning global audiences.”

Consumer CSR understanding, empowerment grows

As CSR becomes firmly grounded in many global citizens’ daily routines and considerations, consumers have a better understanding and are more optimistic overall about their own ability to make a positive impact. In fact, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) believe their purchases make a moderate-to-significant positive impact on social or environmental issues. This positive outlook may stem from a growing command of CSR terms and language: Consumer confusion of company CSR messages has dropped from 71 percent in 2011 to 65 percent in 2015.

As personal accountability and sophistication grows, consumers are also considering their own role in addressing social and environmental issues. Global consumers surveyed state they are willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good: Four-in-five are willing to consume or purchase fewer products to preserve natural resources (81 percent) or buy a product from an unknown brand if it has strong CSR commitments (80 percent). Consumers are even willing to forgo elements such as ownership or quality to push progress forward:

  • 61 percent would be willing to borrow or share products rather than buy new ones
  • 57 percent would purchase a product of lesser quality or efficacy if it was more socially or environmentally responsible

“Companies shouldn’t take consumers’ willingness to make sacrifices as a signal to cut corners,” says Cone EVP Alison DaSilva. “Rather, this is an opportunity to engage consumers more fully in new CSR solutions, collaborating to push the boundaries of responsible consumption and lifestyle.”

The leading ways consumers want to get engaged with companies’ CSR efforts are actions tied directly to their wallets, with nine-in-10 just as likely to purchase (89 percent) as to boycott (90 percent) based on companies’ responsible practices. However, consumers view their role in creating social and environmental change as extending well beyond the cash register. If given the opportunity:

  • 80 percent would tell friends and family about a company’s CSR efforts
  • 76 percent would donate to a charity supported by a company they trust
  • 72 percent would volunteer for a cause supported by a company they trust
  • 72 percent would voice their opinions directly to a company about CSR efforts

Despite their good intentions, the leading ways consumers actually engage with companies remain transactional, as shopping (63 percent), donating (61 percent) and boycotting a product (53 percent) are the top reported behaviors taken over the last 12 months.

“Companies are still relying on traditional forms of consumer engagement primarily tied to the product shelf, yet consumers are looking for more diverse ways to get involved with CSR efforts,” says DaSilva. “Companies can serve as a catalyst for sparking donations, volunteerism and advocacy by giving consumers a spectrum of ways to get involved.”

Bottom-line benefits from CSR engagement

CSR remains a boon to brand reputation and affinity. In line with 2013 results, when companies support social or environmental issues, consumer affinity overwhelmingly upsurges:

  • 93 percent of global citizens will have a more positive image of that company
  • 90 percent will be more likely to trust that company
  • 88 percent will be more loyal (i.e., continue buying products or services)
  • More than eight-in-10 consider CSR when deciding what to buy or where to shop (84 percent), which products and services to recommend to others (82 percent), which companies they want to see doing business in their communities (84 percent) and where to work (79 percent)

CSR is also a powerful differentiator at the register, as 90 percent of global consumers would switch brands to one that is associated with a good cause, given similar price or quality. This inclination to shop with an eye toward greater good has remained strong since 2011.

Breaking through to the empowered consumer

Although global consumers factor social and environmental considerations into many daily decisions, breaking through is proving to be harder than ever. Yet, the consequences of not reaching consumers are high. Two-thirds (64 percent) of consumers say they only pay attention to company CSR efforts if an organization is going above and beyond what other companies are doing. Meanwhile, half (52 percent) will assume a company is not acting responsibly until they hear information otherwise.

The onus is on companies to ensure their CSR efforts and results are being delivered and heard in a way consumers understand.

  • 88 percent expect companies to report on the progress of CSR efforts
  • 86 percent believe if companies make CSR commitments, they must be held accountable for producing and communicating results
  • 89 percent believe companies need to do a better job showing how social and environmental commitments are personally relevant
  • 64 percent will ignore a company’s CSR messages altogether if they use terms they don’t understand

Even as consumers expect companies to communicate results, companies should not rely solely on CSR reports to convey information, as only a quarter of global citizens have read a CSR report in the past 12 months. Companies should look to leverage and communicate data in new ways to stay relevant. Consumers say both stories and data related to impact are equally important (59 percent). They prefer to see CSR data in the form of:

  • Brief written summaries: 43 percent
  • Interactive websites: 34 percent
  • Videos: 31 percent
  • Infographics: 25 percent

The 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study also reveals an increasing democratization of preferred communications channels. Once relegated to one or two traditional sources, global consumers are now looking to a number of channels to get CSR information, from media and advertising to company websites and social media. Product packaging (19 percent), media (15 percent) and advertising (14 percent) remain the most effective ways to reach consumers, but social media and mobile channels combined continue to gain traction, nearly doubling from 10 percent in 2011 to 18 percent in 2015.

  • On the product or its package/label: 19 percent (vs. 22 percent in 2011)
  • Media (e.g., stories or interviews): 15 percent (vs. 21 percent in 2011)
  • Advertising (print, broadcast, online): 14 percent (vs. 16 percent in 2011)
  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter): 13 percent (vs. 7 percent in 2011)
  • Mobile: 5 percent (vs. 3 percent in 2011)

“The consumer mindset of ‘guilty until proven responsible’ puts new pressure on companies to ensure their CSR messages are breaking through,” DaSilva says. “As the communications landscape continues to become more diverse, companies must take an integrated approach to conveying CSR efforts. They need to strike a balance of hyper-targeting CSR content to consumers in ways that are personally relevant, while creating cohesive, always-on communications to break apart from the pack.”

Social media leads CSR conversation

Consistent with 2013 results, consumers continue to see social media as an important way to learn, voice their opinions and speak directly to companies around CSR issues, especially in developing countries. Three-in-five (61 percent) global consumers use social media to address or engage with companies around CSR issues, with usage skyrocketing in China (89 percent), India (88 percent) and Brazil (84 percent). Consumers are primarily using social media to share positive information or learn more about issues:

  • 34 percent of consumers use social media to share positive information about companies and issues
  • 30 percent use social media to learn more about companies or issues
  • 25 percent use social media to share negative information

Global nuances

Although there is strong support for CSR initiatives from all countries surveyed, the emerging markets of India, China and Brazil again remain the most enthusiastic and unwavering in their support:

  • Emerging markets are more likely to feel the impact of company efforts
    • Consumers in India (48 percent), China (36 percent) and Brazil (36 percent) are more likely to believe companies have made a significant impact on social and environmental issues (vs. 27 percent global average)
    • Citizens in emerging markets are more likely to seek out products and switch brands
      • Consumers in India (95 percent), China (94 percent) and Brazil (93 percent) say they seek out responsible products wherever possible (vs. 84 percent global average) and are above-average in their desire to switch brands to one that supports a cause (China 97 percent, Brazil 96 percent, India 95 percent)
      • Consumers in emerging markets are more likely to follow through with purchase - Consumers in China (84 percent), India (80 percent) and Brazil (76 percent) are more likely to have bought a product with a social or environmental benefit in the past 12 months (vs. 63 percent global average)

“This study reveals a higher level of understanding, awareness and support of corporate social responsibility efforts from the world’s consumers. Despite distinctiveness on a country-by-country level, global consumers remain steadfast as open-minded partners for collaboration to drive forward social and environmental progress,” DaSilva says. “Now companies must advance CSR beyond a peripheral brand attribute to create an entirely new CSR experience.”


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