Climate Change

Meet the ‘climate catalysts’ pressing companies to protect the planet

A climate protest poster reading 'the climate is changing, why aren't we?'. 'Climate catalysts' are using their money to urge businesses to do more on protecting the planet.

'Climate catalysts' are using their money to urge businesses to do more on protecting the planet. Image: Unsplash/Marcus Spiske

Simon Glynn
Partner and Climate & Sustainability Co-lead, Oliver Wyman
Simon Cooper
Partner, Oliver Wyman Forum
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Climate Change

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  • One group of consumers is pushing companies into taking responsible actions on climate change, but they're not necessarily who you expect.
  • Rather than Gen Z-ers targeting a world they see as mismanaged by their elders, it's the older generations themselves who are taking action.
  • Companies can benefit by addressing the concerns of these 'climate catalysts', most of which are happy to spend more on sustainable goods.

A powerful group of consumers is mobilizing to change the way companies interact with the environment. But they aren’t who you might think they may be.

Emerging from the pandemic even more committed to climate goals, these passionate activists are trying to drum up the same sense of urgency for protecting the planet that governments and businesses applied to COVID-19.

They’re avoiding companies that don’t address the issue and seeking out those they see taking a lead on tackling climate change – and encouraging others to do likewise.

In this age of Greta Thunberg and social media-fuelled activism, you might assume the leaders of this burgeoning consumer movement are Gen Z-ers looking to change a world they see as mismanaged by their elders.

Have you read?

Instead, they’re elders themselves — mostly middle-aged and older folks who are worried about the impact climate change will have on their children and grandchildren, according to new research by the Oliver Wyman Forum.

The New People Shaping Our Future report analyzed data from more than 125,000 survey respondents in 10 countries to identify the eight key groups driving global business in the 2020s.

In all, the “climate catalyst” cohort accounts for about 13% of the global adult population. Almost 80% of them are age 35 or older, versus only 22% between ages 18 and 34.

Climate catalysts by age group
Almost 80% of the 'climate catalyst' cohort are age 35 or older, versus only 22% between ages 18 and 34. Image: Oliver Wyman Forum

Educated but not affluent, and disappointed with the lack of progress by global leaders, they said they plan to vote and shop differently if they don’t see fresh signs of progress.

The research found that almost 75% of climate catalysts avoid companies that don’t value climate goals, while almost 70% look for brands that are sustainable.

A hefty 84% said they would pay more for sustainable offerings.

How climate catalysts use their dollars to speak to companies.
Some 84% of climate catalysts say they are willing to pay a premium for sustainable offerings. Image: Oliver Wyman Forum

The upshot for business: those that are committed to the climate agenda have an opportunity to build greater brand loyalty, innovate new solutions, and enjoy more satisfied customers and employees.

Those that don’t face potential risks, with almost half of all consumers in the global survey saying they are ready to boycott companies that don’t commit to fighting climate change.

The question, of course, is how companies can signal their commitment while keeping other stakeholder priorities intact.

Here are four key moves companies can make.

Go beyond green products to appeal to climate catalysts

Such strong engagement with the issue suggests there could be a strong market for companies to serve. But turning this potential into reality means more than offering “green” products, which often have disappointing take-up. It also means designing propositions and narratives to appeal to the climate catalysts – a different group than is often assumed, and with more spending power.

Capturing the opportunity also requires companies to earn consumer trust on sustainability through everything they do as a brand, not just the characteristics of a specific product. Provenance matters; people want to know you mean it and are behind it, sincerely. Yet even companies with good stories to tell on sustainability often fail to get their record across to customers.

Companies and consumers care about climate. The challenge is that customers don’t buy the green propositions, and companies treat climate either as a product niche or corporate responsibility. Businesses urgently need to break the impasse by identifying the commercial opportunities and providing those products at scale and affordability.

Put the customer first

Connecting with consumers is fundamental to a commercially-smart transition. Companies should start by knowing who their target customer is and what they want on climate. We found, for example, that more than half of climate activists already have changed their shopping habits to be more sustainable, but 65% said businesses are not providing the products and services they need.

Business needs to let customers know what they are doing for them and how the product is environmentally friendly. The more specific the information, the better.

Create solutions, not burdens

Companies can’t assume a “build it and they will come” mentality. Indicative of the disconnect, beverage companies have found that while there’s growing concern about single-use plastic bottles, many consumers are not switching to products that enable them to produce less wasteful drinks at home.

But businesses can move customers from intent to action by making the green choice more convenient and affordable. One international furniture retailer is doing that by offering cabinets made from recycled plastic bottles and store credits when customers bring in gently used furniture. Another eco-friendly household and personal care company offers products that don’t need plastic.

No matter what the product, retailers should avoid putting green products alongside brown products. That confuses customers and makes the rest of what you do look dirty. They also should make access easier and labels more comprehensive. About half of climate catalysts said they would buy more sustainable products if they were easier to find, better labelled, and there was more information about the benefits.

Authentic leadership

Products aren’t enough. Corporate activity needs to signal that their public stance on environment, social, and governance (ESG) reflects authentic leadership, customer-centricity and solution focus.

Climate catalysts are trying to live more sustainably, and they expect businesses to carry more weight, including using their brands to engage in social issues. They also want transparency and proof.

Almost 60% have changed their purchasing behaviour because of a company’s environmental impact, and 74% are less likely to buy products from companies that do not value climate change.

Mutual trust key to tackling climate change

Companies cannot take on the full task of the climate transition, since so much depends on consumer behaviour change. Equally, consumers don’t respond well to suggestions they should shoulder all the burden themselves.


How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

Sharing risk and trust is essential, which is why the underlying customer relationship matters as much as the product itself – and understanding who the leading climate-driven customers are, and what is motivating them, is an essential start.

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