This social life

Loud, confused and complex – unpicking consumer attitudes toward ‘Green’ consumerism

‘Green’ issues, climate change, sustainability and questions about our impact on the world are burning topics right now.

So we were interested to see the World Wildlife Foundation Palm Oil Buyers scorecard.

It rates companies around the world on their use of palm oil, practices in deforestation and supply chains.

Aside from a few gasps around the L+LR camp about the results (Ferrero at the top, Whole Foods at the bottom…), our curiosity was peaked around the criteria used for rating companies as ‘leading’ or ‘lagging’.

We’ve done a few projects recently helping businesses understand the meaning of ‘green consumption’, sustainability and social good.

We thought it would be interesting to compare the recurring themes about what really matters to people when they’re trying to live an environmentally or socially conscious life. The questions they ask of companies and the criteria for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that shape their behaviours.

Clearly, it’s laudable the WWF is producing a rating and providing some measure of impact and accountability. Especially given the very evident confusion there is for the public about what businesses are / aren’t doing and how to make the ‘right’ choices. The WWF has pragmatically picked a doubtless very well informed set of measures and ones connected to its core purpose.

We thought it might be useful to share a different perspective.

These are the themes we found in social, that show what matters most to those who are actively looking to make changes.

Loud, confused, and complex

Firstly, it’s a super-active space. There is a lot of discussion, in all markets we’ve looked at.

But it’s clear that ‘green’ ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ consumption are not clearly defined terms for people. They are not ‘one thing’ or a set of a few things with clear boundaries. They are inconsistency discussed, often interchangeable issues. There’s a complex mix of interconnected concerns with a language as varied and confused as the consumers behind it seem to be.

It varies globally. What matters in one country is not the same as another. There are strong cultural dynamics often shaped by broader concepts of national values, identities, lifestyles.

Then there are the close links to personal identity – the signals people want to give about themselves, how they want to feel about themselves, what they want to stand for and the anxieties they have about their own actions.

This means there is a complex and confused set of criteria for attempting to be a socially responsible consumer – in contrast to the clear lines and defined set of factors behind the WWF’s framework. It shows how very interested people are. It reflects a hunger for improved knowledge and a keen interest in assessing companies on their actions, to make informed buying choices.

It shows that people ‘get’ how complex it is – they see through simple platitudes and ask the intelligent, pithy questions. And they talk to others about it, a lot.

Recurring themes and fundamentals

In amongst this complex and crowded discussion, there are some recurring themes. If your business is concerned with this whole ‘green thing’, whatever that is, here’s a short summary of what people are looking for when casting a critical eye over the shopping trolly.

Length of service: heritage and credibility in environmental, sustainable and ethical practice matters. This means having a clear, genuine, foundational purpose linked to the issues, not a ‘bolt-on’ or a more recent box-ticking move into it. The latter is called out and readily questioned.

Scale: small is beautiful. Big corp, multi-nationals and mass-produced products are met with scepticism and become a short cut for ‘bad choices’. Small, independent, local producers ‘with a face’ are conversely more trusted on claims of their ethical, small scale, lower-impact practices. There’s a ‘sense’ of traceability and accountability – a believe you can ‘see for yourself’ and not have to take claims on trust.

Location: local / national brands (especially heritage) act as a short-cut for ‘good’. Their local nature implies lower eco-footprint in the transportation of products and therefore polluting impacts. They’re often linked with ‘good’ practices, materials and products. The location of a business’ workforce is also scrutinised – some countries are conflated with poor workforce practices which means that products made there equal ‘bad’. ‘Made in’ can be a badge of assumed honour of production standards: for environmental and working practices together with more durable, quality materials/goods that enable less regular consumption (and impact).

Substances, raw materials: be it clothing or homeware materials, food ingredients or how the lights are kept on, the specifics of ‘what goes into’ products or keeps company operations running are questioned. ‘Natural’ ingredients, deemed to have less toxic impacts on the environment and less polluting to produce are indicators of ‘good’. ‘Organic’ and ‘biodegradable’ are features people seek across all categories and act as short cuts to ‘good’ – far more than palm oil incidentally. However, the impact of apparently natural, ‘clean’ or alternative materials is increasingly questioned unless the impact of production can be known and evidenced.

Resources + responsibility: closely connected to the above is the use of scarce resources. Choice of materials and extraction of resources is a ‘make or break’ factor in the choice architecture. And it’s not just deforestation, use of water is an equal, sometimes louder concern.

Packaging needs to be minimal or of eco-friendly, recycled/recycle-able, or biodegradable materials that are not ‘toxic’. As a tangible and obvious indicator of ‘green’ practices, literally in consumer’s hands, getting packaging wrong can ignite some angry conversations!

Animal welfare is integral to ‘good’ choices and clearly now driving preference for alternatives to leather, fur, animal fibres and food products. Vegan trends speak for themselves here!

‘Cheap’ items made of ‘cheap’ materials are a short cut to ‘bad’ quality and environmental or ethical practices. Artificial, synthetics are conflated with ‘cheap’ and equal ‘bad’. They also break the rules around naturalness being ‘good’ and with a lower (assumed) environmental impact. This doesn’t mean that people don’t like or buy cheap things of course, but they might not feel good about if they do and it’s an internal debate consumers seem to be wrangling with.

Walking the talk, consistently. Showing your commitment to ‘green’ practices flowing through your operations and experiences is crucial. Sceptical consumers are looking to see words in practice and will call out inconsistencies. For example, offering recycled packaging but using energy-inefficient lighting in-store attracts scrutiny.

Subscribe to updates:

Please select all the ways you would like to hear from Listen + Learn Research: