Sustainable consumption: there’s often a gap between what people say and do

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Studies confirm companies have credibility deficit where sustainability is concerned

Many people are keen to consume sustainably. And many of those wanting to consume more responsibly want to know what sustainable consumption means exactly and what they need to do. 

The Competence Centre for Sustainable Consumption (KNK) of the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA), which was launched by the German government in 2017, says, “Sustainable consumption means consuming today in such a way that both present and future generations can meet their needs without exceeding the impact limits that the Earth is capable of withstanding.” 

According to this definition, sustainable consumption of products and services takes place in an area where there are conflicting priorities: satisfying needs such as food, housing, mobility and recreation, and developing individual lifestyles on the one hand and on the other the impact this behaviour has on the state of the environment.

According to the UBA, current consumption patterns worldwide manifest themselves, among other things, in the form of dangerous working conditions and precarious living situations in some production locations, in climate change, in the extinction of species as well as in the form of land-based islands of plastic waste all over the world. This has led to sustainable consumption being repeatedly declared the order of the day. 

But how do consumers internalise this demand? Market research company Kantar has investigated this and conducted a survey of people worldwide. A key finding of the study: the biggest hurdle to achieving more sustainability remains the lack of consistency between consumers’ attitudes and their purchasing decisions, what the market researchers call the ‘value-action gap’. The value-action gap is the gap or contradiction that arises between an individual’s values and their concrete actions.

Consumer behaviour is contrary to people’s convictions

As Petra Dittrich, senior director Sustainability Transformation Practice at Kantar, explains, politics and social initiatives have raised awareness of the climate crisis worldwide. Unfortunately, though, this awareness has not always been followed by the appropriate actions being taken: “Most consumers’ behaviour contradicts their convictions,” she says. In other words, although one in two respondents in the study said they were prepared in principle to buy products from sustainable brands, far fewer actually did so.

The authors of the Kantar study cite the preference for meat dishes, among other things, as striking examples of unsustainable consumption: in the international survey, 72 per cent of the respondents preferred these to vegetarian alternatives. They add that the reuse of products has also not yet reached mainstream society because 70 per cent of the respondents preferred new items to second-hand goods. And 69 per cent preferred to buy packaged products rather than taking their own container to the store. According to Kantar, the value-action gap observed in the data from the rest of the world was also evident in the data from Germany.

Despite these findings, most consumers say they attach great importance to sustainability, as the No Planet B study conducted by Oracle and the Savanta market research institute shows. According to this study, people the world over are demanding more progress in terms of sustainability and social endeavour, and they expect companies to show greater commitment to this. However, more than three-quarters of all consumers surveyed in the study also said they were disappointed with companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. These consumers would be willing to end their relationship with a brand that does not take sustainability and social initiatives seriously, the authors of the study explain. And more than half of all respondents said that if their employer were not committed to sustainability, they would leave in favour of a more ambitious competitor.

Lack of progress

In Germany and the rest of the world, the survey participants lamented the lack of progress made by society in the areas of sustainability and social responsibility. Most of them demanded that companies in particular transform their words into deeds. Specifically in Germany, 90 per cent of the respondents described sustainability and social factors as more important than ever and 74 per cent said that the events of the last two years had prompted them to change their own behaviour.

Some 93 per cent of the study participants also believed that society had not made enough progress in terms of sustainability. Forty-one per cent attributed this to the fact that people were too busy with other priorities. However, 39 per cent thought people were generally too lazy or too selfish to help save the planet. And 30 per cent believed that the lack of progress stems from a greater emphasis on short-term gains over long-term benefits.

For 35 per cent of respondents, companies were better placed to make more meaningful changes in sustainability and social factors than individuals or governments. However, 77 per cent of the respondents also said that companies were not making enough progress on sustainability, and 89 per cent wanted companies to not only communicate their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, but also to follow them up with action and provide evidence.

Another study on the subject of consumption and climate change illustrates the low level of consumer confidence in statements made by manufacturers on the sustainability of their products. The CSR-KOMPASS Study on Consumer Climate Change 2022, which was conducted by the market research and consulting company Smartcon in cooperation with Keßler, the CSR consulting agency, revealed that 80 per cent of the consumers surveyed were critical of manufacturers’ statements on sustainability. One striking finding was that with increasing age - and could it be greater experience of life? - they trusted manufacturers’ claims less and less: among those aged 18-29, the figure was 27 per cent, but among those aged 50-65 it was only 14 per cent.

No confidence in sustainability statements

“The study reveals that basically only a few people have confidence in the statements made by manufacturers about the sustainability of their products,” says Johannes Keßler, managing director of Keßler Kommunikationsberatung and co-initiator of the study, summarising the results. According to the study, friends or family had the greatest credibility as so-called testimonials, followed by consumer protection organisations, government agencies, NGOs and certification organisations. Regarding the media, the sceptics trusted public broadcasters most, followed much further behind by the social media. However, politicians and influencers, were rather unimportant for forming opinions on the sustainability of products. The study also revealed another interesting aspect: medium-sized and owner-managed German companies have significantly greater credibility among consumers when it comes to sustainability than large companies and global corporations.

When it comes to the bottom line, the above-mentioned studies make it clear that consumers have the best of intentions when it comes to sustainability but, as is so often the case, these are not fulfilled when it comes to everyday situations. The studies also show that many consumers doubt the credibility of the (advertising) statements made by many companies regarding their sustainability efforts. The conclusion is that there is still a lot to do everywhere before sustainable consumption becomes established in practice.

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