Sustainability is about meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of the future. Today's consumer now expects companies to honor this in both word and deed. Consumer attitudes and behavior have changed dramatically in the recent past, moving from indifference to active participation in sustainable behaviors. Globally, 67 percent of consumers now feel it is the collective responsibility of businesses and individuals to work towards sustainability.
The values, behavior gap has narrowed
The link between values, attitude and actual behavior has been perplexing marketers for decades: when and how do values convert into actual behavior? Known as the value-action gap, it is the difference between what a person says and what they do. In terms of sustainability, people have historically ‘talked green but bought brown’. A frustrating paradox for those seeking to drive environmental responsibility.
Consequently, the value-action gap has been a significant one. Research tracking interest in sustainability over the period 2004–2014 by the University of Indiana identified that fully15 40 percent of the population in developed countries were not in any way engaged in resolving green issues. In fact, interest in environmental matters was on the decrease, and while many consumers reported positive attitudes towards eco-friendly products and services, they were unwilling to follow through with their wallets.
In 2022, this is much less the case. Our research shows that fully 86 percent are now actively concerned about social and environmental factors, 76 percent have made purchasing decisions based on a company’s approach to reducing its environmental impact and over half of all respondents (59 percent) have taken positive civic action to lead to improvements. The value-action gap has narrowed considerably.
What has changed?
The conversion from values to behavior depends on the strength of an individual's motivation and their ability to enact the behavior easily. Both have moved on immeasurably.
When it comes to motivation human beings are more likely to change behavior when the consequences of that behavior become personally meaningful. A combination of local and central government policy, corporate behavior and personal experience of increasingly calamitous weather events have increased awareness and changed behaviors. Eighty-six percent of individuals now feel the need to reduce consumption or recycle wherever possible.
The commitment to sustainability is especially pronounced among younger people, who have a strong conviction that personal behavior can make a difference in addressing environmental issues and who expect environmental concerns to be front and center for the companies they purchase from. Millennials want brands that embrace purpose and sustainability, and they in turn are changing the attitudes of the older population through a process of inter-generational drift, where the values of the younger population influence and change behaviors of the older generations.
it is now much easier to make positive environmental choices, thus increasing an individual’s ability to make a difference. There is much greater availability of goods and services that have sustainable credentials, with labelling on food products, for example, enabling consumers to make more-sustainable purchasing decisions, as well as the widespread availability of electric vehicles, smart home technology and easier recycling. The top actions people are doing more consistently are: reducing household energy consumption, increasing recycling and composting, and buying locally produced goods.
These might be small steps but research by IKEA has shown that small behavioral steps lead to bigger ones. The company found that although people may begin with a single step— such as reducing household food waste — they often move on to act in other areas, such as energy conservation.
IKEA characterized this as the “snowball effect” - people begin with small actions and quickly build to more meaningful ones.
COVID-19 has accelerated the desire for sustainable behaviors
The COVID-19 pandemic is a major global event, affecting the health and prosperity of people worldwide. It has proven rapid world change is possible, as seen with the many lockdowns, the shift to online working and vaccine rollouts.
A wide-ranging effect of this pandemic is how it is leading individuals to prioritize what is important in life and is reshaping human motivation and behavior on a large scale. The pandemic introduced a new dynamic – worry. This has led to a significant acceleration and amplification of key concerns, namely personal health, safety, social and economic security, and environmental well-being. As a side effect everything temporarily stopped, and this gave us the opportunity to perceive the positive effects that it had on the environment.
In the wake of the pandemic, people are much more concerned about addressing environmental challenges and are more committed to changing their own behavior to advance sustainability.
The heightened awareness is striking. Some 70 percent of the survey participants said they were more aware now than before COVID-19 that human activity threatens the climate and that degradation of the environment, in turn, threatens humans.
The net result is that over the last two decades when it comes to green issues and sustainability, the gap has narrowed substantially, in line with people’s motivation to take responsibility for their actions and their belief in their ability to make a personal difference.
The relative importance of price, quality and values in decision making is shifting
Traditional predictors of consumer purchasing behavior have been price and quality, while these still play a significant part, the price, quality and values equation has changed. For many people these are now balanced with sustainability considerations. The research shows that 70 percent of respondents will pay more for products from companies where they agree with their principles.
When it comes to price, the media has changed perceptions as to how ultra-cheap pricing is achieved and enabled a deeper understanding that cheap is often synonymous with destructive, unhealthy, irresponsible and possibly even cruel practices.
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