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Green consumerism: what brands need to know

Following widespread protests in 2019, messages of eco-consciousness haven’t just cut through, they’ve stuck.

One look at the advertising landscape tells you all you need to know; IKEA is promoting green consumerism, BrewDog is making its stance on CO2 abundantly clear, and Persil’s “Dirt is Good” campaign hopes to raise awareness of small acts to combat pollution.

Using data from our Core survey, and a separate Zeitgeist survey earlier this year, we explore green consumerism, looking to answer the following questions:

  • How important is green consumerism to consumers? 
  • How are consumers taking the initiative to go green?
  • What role are brands and corporations expected to play in fighting climate change?

Eco fears are inevitable down the line.

In the early stages of the pandemic, positive images of a healing world made the rounds online – dolphins swimming through crystal clear Venetian canals, and the Himalayas being visible in India for the first time in three decades, to name a couple.

It became something of a meme; the phrase “Nature is healing” accompanied with images of strange or unusual occurrences that could only happen without human interference. 

As a result, fears the environment would get worse subsided quickly in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. 

Across the majority of the 47 countries we track:

Consumers’ environmental optimism jumped up by at least 20 points during this timeframe. 

Only 4 markets had a slight decrease, or no change. This is the first time we’ve seen increases of this magnitude. In fact, expectations that the environment would get worse have continued to fall since Q1 2020 (albeit slowly), declining 19% among all internet users as of Q1 2021. 

At the same time, 44% expect the environment to get better in the next 6 months, a 7% increase on 2019.

On the one hand, this is a sign that an increased awareness of eco initiatives, coupled with seeing the positive effects on wildlife, boosted hopes of a genuine improvement down the line.

On the other, these figures could be read as naivety; with people seeing a short-term change in the environment’s condition as a success instead of a warning. 

It’s likely this positive mindset is only temporary, given much of the change regarding the public’s attitude about the environment occurred between 2019 and H1 2020. And with global carbon emissions having already returned to their pre-COVID levels, there’s little evidence to suggest things will improve anytime soon.

For now, our data indicates consumers are staying positive, but it’s clear things are already changing back to the way they were; now is not the time to get complacent.

Consumers will justify the extra cost to be eco-friendly.

Looking closer at internet users’ financial behaviors offers a better understanding of how green consumerism has truly taken off.

When given the chance, people typically opt for ways to save money; two-thirds of internet users say they would sooner wait for a product to go on sale than buy it at full price. At the same time, factors like free delivery or discounts have made for top purchase drivers since we began tracking them in 2015.

But when it comes to being eco-friendly, frugality tends to take a backseat; 

60% of internet users say they’ll pay more for products that are eco-friendly.

It’s a promising sign being eco-friendly is important to consumers, even among those we might not expect. Older generations, for example, aren’t too far behind their younger counterparts for saying they would buy high-price, eco-friendly products. Even low earners or those who describe themselves as price-conscious will still prefer to be eco-friendly than not.

Moreover, very few countries show an exception to this rule: South Korea, Russia, the Netherlands, Japan, Israel, and Hong Kong would rather opt for a non-eco-friendly option, while all other 41 markets we track prefer eco-friendly alternatives.

But there’s still work to be done. Our Zeitgeist study, fielded earlier this year, showed 60% of internet users in the U.S. and UK cited cost as the main barrier to purchasing eco-friendly products. While most are happy to pay more, ensuring these sorts of products are more affordable is essential if they’re to break into the mainstream.

In time, there’s scope for brands to push luxury, eco-friendly products to affluent consumers – something the fashion industry is quickly adapting to.

Brands need to play their part in green consumerism.

Earlier this year, our data showed consumers are willing to pay for eco-friendly products, cut down their meat consumption, or recycle where possible, but they still need brands to support them in return.

In general, knowing a company is environmentally friendly has consistently ranked among internet users’ top 10 purchase drivers since we began tracking it in 2019, with 1 in 5 saying this as of Q1 2021.

At the same time, almost half of consumers want brands to also play their part and be eco-friendly – something that ranks first on their list of desired brand actions.

This is a shared responsibility; our Zeitgeist study revealed 7 in 10 internet users believed big corporations (of any kind) should be doing more to address environmental issues – but what exactly do they want to see?

Chart showing eco steps consumers most want brands to take

Aside from reducing the cost of eco-friendly products in general, over half of consumers say they want brands to use more recyclable materials in their packaging (or less packaging in general).

For CPG brands, in particular, creating sustainable packaging with appeal has been a long-fought battle, but the appeal of physical packaging is shifting – particularly as ecommerce takes priority over in-person retail. 

Among weekly online shoppers in the U.S., the number who pay attention to how products are packaged has fallen 8% since Q2 2020. This means looking to branding that looks good on a small screen, but also making the use of recyclable materials far easier to justify. 

At the same time, those who say they prefer eco-friendly products are over twice as likely as the average consumer to pay attention to packaging. It’s a clear sign that presentation is less important, but that the production process and materials used are under more scrutiny.

Using fewer chemicals, or using more natural ingredients, in products is also a key concern. Beauty brands will want to pay attention here, being clear with consumers about their supply chains, ingredients and things like animal testing, given 48% of beauty buyers say companies should be eco-friendly.

While these are challenges for all industries to consider, clarity should always be a priority and consumers are wising up to brands that ignore this.

Go green, mean green.

Eco-consciousness has become so ingrained in our culture, it’s understandable we feel confident enough to tackle climate change for good. Nevertheless, it can’t be done alone, and while it’s important for brands to do their part, it’s more important they commit to it.

“Greenwashing” (using eco-friendly rhetoric to avoid actually doing anything eco-friendly) is becoming an increasingly bigger problem, with the ICPEN revealing as many as 40% of environmental claims found online could be misleading consumers into making purchases.

For internet users, authenticity has always ranked highly as a quality they expect from brands, making transparency absolutely crucial. By detailing how products are good for the environment, and how consumers’ money will be used effectively, brands can continue to do good without attracting criticism.

Click to access our connecting the dots 2021 report

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