People want to shop green – what can brands and retailers do to help them?

Say hello to Attest Investigates! A series where I use the Attest platform to test popular hypotheses and answer your burning questions.

As a trained scientist, I am obsessed with experimentation, empiricism and using data to make decisions. We’ll delve into all things consumer research, using a scientific analysis style to lift the lid on the most important unknowns for brands, as requested by you!

A few highlights in the data (sneak preview):

  • 42% of consumers rate sustainability as ‘very important’ – but sustainability ranks far, far behind the all-time consumer classics: ‘value for money’, ‘quality of products’ and ‘easy to get’.
  • Given the choice, people would shop more sustainably – 33% said they would shop sustainably if they always had the option ‘all the time’, and 49% ‘some of the time’… yet overall, consumers believe it’s up to stores/brands to drive sustainability improvements, not the consumers themselves.
  • This seems to imply that for sustainability gains to really land and change long-held consumer habits, we need to weld sustainability to pre-existing consumer preferences and habits – so ‘Sustainability’ is combined with classical ‘value, quality and ease’. It’s hard to do, but as we see below, this is something that brands, stores and consumers can all share.

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Introduction and hypothesis

For this edition of Attest Investigates, I’ve taken on two awesome questions submitted a few weeks ago on Linkedin. 

Both submissions are related to sustainability and green topics: 

  1. Do consumers’ intentions to shop sustainably translate into real changes in purchasing behaviour? 
  2. Which products and green credentials do people actually recognise and prioritise when shopping?

These must be subjects that resonate with many of us. People might have the best overt intentions (‘oh yeah that new environmentally friendly choice looks marvellous – I’ll go for it, and do the right thing!’) but in reality, it’s much easier (and historically standard human behaviour) to revert to habit and carry on buying the more familiar, cheaper, easier option. Mass behaviour change is hard to achieve and maintain. Really hard.

Here’s our hypothesis for this Attest Investigates: shoppers will say they want to shop ‘more green’, but in reality there’s disappointing tangible follow-through. We wanted to get into that, and really explore it.

There’s also an interesting dilemma here: we consumers must do everything we can to affect small changes to help the environment – that’s the overt overall idea, where every individual contribution matters and we’re all in this together when it comes to climate change – but we also have household budgets, and a range of other competing priorities to balance. Meanwhile brands, who we also magically expect to change the world and do everything they can to save the planet, have their own commercial priorities, shareholder obligations and practical commitments too. Everyone has good reasons NOT to change.

We thought it’s time to explore that. As I shall reveal in this report, in the eyes (and minds) of consumers, it’s the responsibility of brands to offer consumers green options that will satisfy shoppers’ wallets as well as keep shareholders happy. Consumers want green choices to be the best overall choices, not ‘just green’ choices. That’s a big big challenge for brands to deliver.

Method

For this research we focused on the US, and asked 500 US consumers about their sustainable shopping habits and opinions. 

Over on the Attest dashboard you can see the full research results, and use the wonderful demographic filters to drill down into the data yourself – give it a try, right now! 

Results

Just how important is sustainability to consumers?

We asked respondents to rate some key priorities around choosing retailers and brands – ranking those priorities from ‘very important’ down to ‘not important at all’. 

For ranking retailers, dishearteningly, ‘sustainability’ ranked sixth out of seven for ‘very important’. Only ‘retailers being recognisable names’ ranked lower. From a more positive perspective, 42% of people still rated sustainability as ‘very important’. So sustainability is important to consumers when choosing retailers and brands, but it’s nowhere near the top priorities… yet.

On ranking brands/products, nearly 40% of shoppers say sustainability is very important when selecting products, which is broadly in line with their thoughts on where they choose to shop. Again, probably not the result and prioritisation many of us would like to see, but these are the forces of real human habits and decision-making that the drive for greater sustainability is fighting so hard against!

So if sustainability isn’t top, what is more important in the minds of shoppers, and what does sustainability need to beat to get to the front/top of mind? 

‘Value for money’ was the emphatic number one for customers with 73% of people marking this as very important for when selecting which retailer to shop with. This was followed by ‘quality of products’ and ‘easy to get there’ with 64% and 54% respectively. 

Interestingly, when we asked what people prioritise when choosing the products they buy, it was quality that came out top, with 70% of people rating this as very important. ‘Value for money’ is still right up there for product selection also, with 67% saying this is a very important factor for selection. 

To win over consumers, sustainability either needs to beat – or be paired with – these classical consumer habits and default priorities, which have formed over entire generations. That’s a tough task, but at least it’s clear in the data both (a) the extent of the gap to overcome, and (b) some indications about how sustainability can become a top priority, rather than an afterthought

Three fifths say stores could do more to reduce plastic waste

We asked whether people think stores do enough to reduce plastic waste and usage. I don’t think the results will come as much of a surprise. 

Just 15% of people say stores do enough, and 21% say stores do everything they can to reduce plastic waste. The majority of people (59%) think stores could do more, with 29% saying they could do a lot more. I feel this reflects the public sentiment about stores and brands not doing all they can to be sustainable. 

However, it’s clear in the data that consumers believe it’s up to stores/brands to drive sustainability improvements, not the consumers themselves. I really want that not to be true, but this reality does come across starkly across the dataset.

Given the choice, people would shop more sustainably

Following the great Attest Investigates submissions about whether green intentions translate into green spending, we wanted to get to the nub of this thorny issue. 

We asked how often consumers shop at a store because of its sustainable practices, and we got a fairly evenly spread response:

  • 23% said ‘all the time’
  • 39% said ‘some of the time’
  • 25% said ‘not very often’
  • 13% said ‘never’

Then we asked how often people would shop sustainably if they always had the option to:

  • 33% said ‘all the time’ – a 10 percentage point difference over the 23% from the previous section
  • 49% said ‘some of the time’ – another 10 percentage point increase
  • 12% said ‘not very often’ – a 13 percentage point decrease
  • 5% said ‘never – an 8 percentage point decrease

So 72% of people would shop sustainably to a considerable extent if they always had the option to. 

This speaks to a wider issue – the availability of sustainable products, and the lack of availability that forces people to carry on buying what they always have.

We asked the people who didn’t choose ‘all the time’ why they don’t always buy sustainable products. Their top reasons were:

  • They’re too expensive – 40% said this
  • There isn’t a wide enough range to choose from – 35%
  • They’re not available at my local store – 34%

Only 8% said ‘I don’t want to buy them’. What this emphasises is that there is absolutely a vast consumer appetite for sustainable products. Gravity pulls everything towards sustainability, it just needs to be an easy choice to make. 

As we can see, people’s reasons for not buying sustainable products are all about availability and cost. In a way this is encouraging – I think it’d be more concerning if the top reasons were to do with environmental apathy or ideology, as they’d be tougher to resolve.

West and northeast are less open to sustainable shopping

When we asked how often people shop at a store because of its sustainable practices, the northeast US over-indexed for ‘never’ (18.5%), while the south of the US under-indexed (7%). 

And this trend continued when we asked how often people would shop sustainably if they always had the option to. Northeasterners over-indexed for ‘not very often’ (17%), compared with just 8% of people in the south. 

What brands can do to increase sustainable spending

The intention for sustainable spending is clearly there – there’s at least a 20% increase in sustainable shopping at stake (remember those ‘all the time/some of the time’ stats?). 

What’s missing is the affordability and choice consumers have come to expect from their day-to-day shopping. 

Those top 3 reasons for not shopping sustainably all the time can be solved if shoppers are given more options that are sustainable, and at prices that are reasonable or on a par with their standard shopping.

So simple, right? 

Absolutely not; as we’ve seen with many of our clients at Attest and great efforts across the globe, developing sustainable products at scale, and at a price consumers are willing to pay, is hard to start, and even harder to make stick. 

Conclusion

It will take brands, retailers, consumers and investors – and even further public sector support – pulling together to make this work. Changing behaviour is hard, and the secret we’ve learned here is to make sustainability part of existing habits. As it turns out, changing the world is about: not trying to change the world, but instead making it ever-easier to make sustainability-friendly choices at an individual level.

Of course, more drastic moves exist. This article is all about consumers – their demand and their choices. Changes in supply also make a huge difference (e.g. eliminating non-electric cars, banning single-use plastics, etc.). But it’s clear that at an individual level, understanding human and consumer decision-making is the key to unlocking true sustainability shifts from consumers. 

Understanding consumers’ willingness to adapt and to do their bit is of course a crucial part of the process. And Attest can help! Find out how you can create and launch successful new products with consumer research.

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Jeremy King

CEO 

Jeremy founded Attest in mid-2015, following 9 years leading global teams across industries at McKinsey & Company. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, originally trained as a scientist with a focus on genetics, ecology and animal behaviour, and also helps to improve state primary schools with his charity work.

See all articles by Jeremy