People Say They Want Sustainable Consumption, But Do They Mean It?

Everyone claims to only want to buy the products that are best for the planet and society, and yet, few people do. But people aren’t just lying to themselves, there are larger forces at work.

People Say They Want Sustainable Consumption, But Do They Mean It?
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Do people want to consume sustainably? According to a large new survey of 6,224 shoppers in Brazil, China, India, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., the answer, overwhelmingly, is yes.


Fully 66% of respondents think “we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations,” while 65% feel “a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”

And yet: There isn’t a lot of evidence that we are actually consuming less. And, as the authors point out, there are not many examples of sustainable products beating out less wholesome ones.

What gives?

One possibility is that people are simply saying one thing, and doing another. But the more charitable explanation–one favored by the report–is that the products are not yet available, or that when they are, they are not marketed well enough.

The survey, published by BBMG, GlobeScan, and SustainAbility, splits the global market into four segments.

  • “Advocates” (14%) “feel a sense of guilt about their own personal impact on the environment and society,” seek out facts, and want to share “their ideas and experiences to help companies develop better products.”
  • “Aspirationals” (37%) are the “persuadable middle”: “materialistically oriented” and concerned about style and status, but prepared to consider alternatives.
  • “Practicals” (34%) are worried about price, skeptical of social and environmental claims, and likely to see green benefits only as “add-ons” not core factors.
  • “Indifferents” (16%), as their name suggests, are likely to say things like “there is very little individuals can do,” or that people “exaggerate the seriousness of environmental problems.”

The report says the “aspirationals” hold the key, because they are the largest group. And they are also “trendsetters in emerging markets like China and India,” where business “has the opportunity to shape a new consumerism by meeting their aspirations and desires with more sustainable products and lifestyle choices.”


Interestingly, the report shows more interest in sustainability in the developing world. For example, more consumers in Brazil, India, and China (51%) say they buy things for environmental and social reasons than they do in the U.S., U.K., and Germany (22%). More consumers say they are prepared to pay a premium for sustainable products (60% to 26%), and greater percentages are prepared to persuade their friends (70% to 34%).

The main barriers to higher levels of sustainable consumption are poor communication, and the widespread perception that greener products cost more, and provide less performance. The report recommends that brands consider offering “total value”: that is, “products that deliver practical benefits like price and quality but that also negate buyer’s remorse by providing societal and environmental good”; that marketing includes “what’s in it for we?” as well as “what’s in it for me?” messaging; and that companies collaborate with consumers who “see themselves as fans, co-creators, and champions of the brands” and want to help come up with more sustainable alternatives.

The recommendations won’t do much to assuage critics who see “sustainable consumption” as oxymoronic (and who argue in favor of buying less, not just differently). But the survey does show that 45% globally are happy “making, repairing, or reusing products rather than buying them new” (50% in developing markets).

Maybe that consumer insight can begin to inform business models too?

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.