As the fight against climate change becomes ever more pressing, consumers claim to be willing to make more sustainable choices. However, numerous studies show that consumers’ positive opinions about environmental protection rarely translate into actual sustainable consumption behaviours. For instance in France, the second biggest market for organic products in Europe, while 73% of consumers claimed to eat organic food at least once a month in 2020, it represented only 6.5% of households’ food expenditures.
This green gap makes it difficult to predict future demand for sustainable products. It is also often used as a pretext by firms to discourage their already too timid efforts at environmentally respectful practices.
Basing decisions on sustainability concerns
Over decades, consumers have “learned” to arbitrate their purchase decisions using many criteria (i.e., price, brand image, or performance) quite removed from sustainability concerns. Changing such habits takes time, especially in difficult economic periods.
Moreover, several contextual factors distract consumers from sustainable considerations: Ever more hurried shoppers focus on the most visible marketing cues, and strong social stigma are often associated with sustainable options, as is the case with vegan or organic food in certain geographic areas.
To help consumers base their decisions on sustainability concerns, several solutions are possible:
- A reward system, for instance based on monetary incentives and penalties according to the level of product sustainability, can help shift consumer decisions. However, implementing such policies requires strong regulation to ensure that the products’ environmental and social credentials are accounted for in their final price.
- An access to easily understandable information about products’ sustainability credentials at the very moment of purchase would also contribute to orient consumer decision-making toward sustainable attributes. There is a controversy about the mandatory implementation of France’s Nutri-Score in all European countries, but mobile apps such as Yuka can be very useful in this regard.
- Nudging, a technique which uses indirect cues to gently influence behaviour, also shows interesting results. For instance, dividing an ashtray into two parts and asking people to “cast a vote” for their favourite footballer, Messi or Ronaldo, has proved to be more powerful than a laborious explanation to convince people not to throw their cigarette butts on the ground.
- Establishing social norms that present sustainable behaviours as desirable outcomes adopted by a growing group of people also contribute to behavioural changes. For instance, a message showing that most people recycle their waste is more convincing than a message explaining rationally why recycling is useful in fighting climate change.
Increasing consumer conviction
Consumers are not easily convinced that their consumption choices can have any positive impact on climate change or social progress.
- First, decades of “greenwashing” have rendered consumers sceptical to brands’ “green” promises. For sincerely sustainable brands, it is a real challenge to build a differentiated image compared to less virtuous competitors.
- Second, consumers may not act in accordance with their values because of a low perceived consumer effectiveness, i.e. they feel that their consumption behaviour only has a negligible impact compared to the actions of the multitude of industrial actors.
Yet several solutions can increase consumer conviction:
- Choosing the right message strategy is key to shape consumer conviction. Research shows that positive messages showing opportunities for concrete actions and simple changes in routines are optimal to drive consumers toward more sustainable choices. Conversely, messages based on fear and guilt are less effective, as they often lead to strong counter-argumentation and denial.
- Communicating on the appropriate sustainability benefits is also critical. Sustainability benefits communicated in advertisements are generally either self-oriented (e.g., cost reduction issued from energy savings) or society-oriented (e.g., global warming reduction).
The efficiency of these claims depends on the consumption context: society-oriented benefits are more efficient when products are consumed in a public context (e.g., cars), whereas self-oriented benefits should be put forward when products are consumed in a private context (e.g., washing machines).
- Transparency about products’ sustainable credentials also helps convince consumers. Brands should therefore move away from the intangible and blurred green messages often used in advertisements and focus on the products’ tangible sustainable benefits in terms of circularity, life cycle assessment, or possibilities of maintenance, reuse, or resale.
Improving consumer knowledge
Despite the increasing media spotlight on sustainability, the gap between consumers’ personal conviction and actual behaviour also comes from a lack of consumer knowledge of these issues. They have a biased vision of the ecological and social processes associated with the products they consume, which is not helped by the proliferation of confusing information on this topic.
To improve consumer knowledge on sustainability, solutions include:
- Consumer education is an absolute must in terms of environmental and social issues. Schools and universities are particularly well-placed to act. They can indeed influence young people who are not only tomorrow’s consumers, but also future leaders. NGOs also have huge potential for action on consumers and citizens. Greenpeace or WWF have already had a significant influence on the decisions of leading companies.
- The use of social media is also critical. Consumers, especially from the younger generations, use social media such as Twitter as privileged information sources and self-expression platforms. The feeling of engagement, the speed of diffusion and the non-commercial nature of the information source represent key elements to convince consumers to actively change their decisions or denounce bad practices.
Many actors have a role to play in the closure of the green gap and the move toward higher levels of sustainability, including business schools such as ESCP which is developing an increasing number of programs around sustainability. The clock is ticking as the time available to put things right is limited.
This article is based on Creating Sustainable Value by Closing the Green Gap, part of ESCP Business School’s “Better Business: Creating Sustainable Value” impact paper series.