3 ways to help consumers make more sustainable choices

Helping consumers to make a sustainable choice.

Helping consumers to make a sustainable choice. Image: Pexels.

Aparna Bharadwaj
Managing Director and Partner, Boston Consulting Group
Lauren Taylor
Managing Director & Partner, Boston Consulting Group
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  • Approximately 80% of consumers say they consider sustainability in their day-to-day decisions.
  • Yet only 1-7% of consumers report paying a premium for sustainable products and services today.
  • We outline three strategies to close this gap and encourage large segments of 'in between' consumers to make sustainable choices.

What will it take to dramatically expand the number of consumers who choose environmental sustainability, whether through their behaviours or their purchases? Our research confirms that consumers care about climate and sustainability, and many want to do their part. We surveyed approximately 19,000 consumers in eight countries, examining 14 product and service categories.

But while up to 80% of consumers say they are concerned about sustainability, only 1-7% report that they are paying a premium for sustainable products and services. Leaders often interpret this extremely broad gap as a signal that consumers are not yet ready to follow through on their convictions about sustainability. We believe, however, that measuring only those two extremes conveys an incomplete picture of the true range of consumer behaviours.

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Fortunately, there are ways to motivate the numerous “in between” consumers to cross the threshold and make more sustainable choices.

CEOs, chief marketing officers, and chief sustainability officers need to understand the factors that currently deter consumers from fully embracing sustainable choices and the factors that will motivate them to make sustainable choices – even when the motivation is not sustainability itself. Then, C-suite executives need to learn to speak the language that will best resonate with consumers.

There’s marked variation across the product and service categories we examined. Some categories are more advanced on the consumer maturity curve, offering significant opportunity for companies to step up.

Sustainable action by consumers. Source: BCG.
Sustainable action by consumers. Source: BCG.

Regardless of category, companies will not fully maximize the potential of sustainable products and services if they focus only on accessing consumers who are willing to pay more for sustainability – a segment that currently comprises just 1-7% of consumers. That segment is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Companies can move more consumers toward sustainable products and services by thinking about what will catalyze three consumer segments that are currently “sitting on the fence.” Those segments – consumers who are concerned about sustainability but not acting, consumers who have adopted sustainable behaviours, and consumers who are acting by purchasing some sustainable products and services (albeit not at a premium) – are high-potential silent stakeholders in sustainability.

By understanding consumers’ core needs, companies can significantly increase sustainable outcomes. For example, linking sustainability to other needs that are consumers’ primary drivers of choice (such as health) can motivate two to four times as many consumers.

Three imperatives will expand the uptake of sustainable lifestyles: make claims locally relevant, broaden the dialogue, and break the tradeoffs.

1. Make it locally relevant to consumers

Among consumers who are paying more for sustainability or acting by making sustainable purchases, participation can be expanded if companies emphasize the legitimate, fact-based sustainability claims that resonate best given consumer perceptions, and thus spur consumers to greater action. Consumers are wary of claims that might be perceived as greenwashing. Chief experience officers (CXOs) need to speak the language of consumers rather than the language of their internal business team, regulators, or investors.

This language can differ in each country, so CXOs should use nuanced claims and language across markets. For instance, product claims that relate to protecting forests and biodiversity will resonate for consumers in Brazil. Packaging is an issue of particular concern to Japanese consumers; they are likely to favour products that are recyclable, reusable, and made of compostable packaging or packaging that is free of plastics.

Sustainability claims need to be locally relevant. Source: BCG.
Sustainability claims need to be locally relevant. Source: BCG.

2. Broaden the dialogue to include consumers' other needs

We found that, at most, 16% of consumers value sustainability for its own sake as a top driver of choice; this relatively small share of consumers said sustainability was one of the top-three needs in their last purchase.

However, a significantly larger share of consumers (20-43% in the categories we tested) could be persuaded to make sustainable choices if companies emphasize how these products or services also deliver other related and highly relevant needs.

In the beverages category, for instance, only 7% of consumers cite sustainability as one of the top-three attributes they consider when making a purchase. But a larger share of consumers – as much as 43% – have top-three needs that don’t include sustainability specifically. These consumers seek beverages that are healthy, high quality, guilt free, and socially responsible – all of which are needs that tend to be correlated with sustainability in consumers’ minds.

Put simply, this means that consumers favour beverages that happen to be sustainable because these products offer other attributes. By broadening the dialogue to emphasize these related attributes in product design and marketing, companies can attract consumers to sustainable products even when consumers are not deliberately seeking sustainability. Thus, they can make their products relevant to a larger group of consumers.

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3. Break the perceived tradeoffs

Consumers who express concern about climate and sustainability and those who are adopting sustainable behaviours can be reached through strategies designed to break the tradeoffs – the real or perceived barriers that make consumers hesitant to more fully embrace sustainability. Beyond the issues of awareness and access, sustainable products sometimes carry negative associations for consumers. For instance, sustainable skin care products are not considered to be “trendy.” Sustainable beverages are not considered a good value for money.

Sometimes these tradeoffs reflect real shortcomings. Companies’ sustainable offerings might genuinely not include appealing or acceptable products and services. Companies may offer less variety in the category of sustainable snacks, for instance, or a paper straw may be of poor quality relative to a plastic straw and therefore less effective in use.

Alternatively, the tradeoffs may be misperceptions on the part of consumers. Many consumers don’t know that sustainable alternatives to products and services exist, even when they are available. And consumers who do not purchase sustainable products and services may assume that they are a lot more expensive than they actually are.

Focus on the consumers' core needs

We believe that consumers are the key to taking green mainstream. Companies have ample opportunity to help consumers step up. Sometimes this will mean driving product innovation to remove real barriers, and sometimes it will mean using communication to address perceived barriers. In either case, the most important component to reach the mainstream audience is ensuring that messaging and sustainable products meet consumers’ core needs.

Making the attribute of sustainability an “and,” not an “or,” will be a win-win for the environment and the company’s bottom line.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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