Eric Whan, GlobeScan: Five Reasons the Time Is Right to Help Consumers Live Healthy and Sustainable Lifestyles
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AUTHORS: Eric Whan
As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'.
Eric Whan, Director, at GlobeScan, a global market research firm discusses how we can close the consumer intention-action gap when it comes to sustainable behavior.
For decades, well-meaning and erudite social scientists, marketers and their researchers, activists, and advertisers have all been searching for a magic wand. With just one wave, that wand would shift consumers’ choice calculus from socially and environmentally harmful decision making, to instinctive inclinations that would save the planet. They (and we count ourselves at GlobeScan among them) have thus far failed to find it.
The reason why? The assumption that consumers would simply do the right thing if presented with morally “better” options, even if they came with efficacy and style tradeoffs, has been baked into our theories of change. Companies have loaded responsibility on the backs of consumers, rather than investing in innovative solutions to this enduring demand vs supply, chicken vs egg dilemma. The science says that urgently needs to change. So how do we find the win-win?
Working in partnership with IKEA, P&G, PepsiCo, VF Corp, Visa, and WWF and other influential organizations, GlobeScan set out to explore how they can make it easier for consumers to live in ways that are both healthier and more environmentally sustainable, reframed as “living in a way that is good for you, good for others and good for the environment.” In a 2019 online survey of more than 25,000 consumers in 25 countries around the world, consumers told us how they feel about healthy and sustainable living and how they would like organisations to help them change.
The Healthy & Sustainable Living Insights Project uncovers five important dynamics that show that the timing may now be right for organisations to get serious about enabling consumers to shift toward healthier and more sustainable behavior if the usual tradeoffs can be mitigated – a shift from the “tyranny of ‘or’ to the power of ‘and,’” as one iconic brand manager once put it to us.
1. Consumers want to change – but they need help from brands
Consumers everywhere make it clear that they care very much about the environment, and many are keen to change their own behavior in order to help. They are very worried about various environmental issues, such as climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and single-use plastic waste. In fact, GlobeScan’s longitudinal research shows that environmental anxieties have been growing rapidly since 2014. Many also claim to feel guilty about their own negative impact on the environment, especially younger people.
Reflecting this widespread concern about the environment, a majority of consumers surveyed also aspire to live in a way that is both healthier and more environmentally friendly. While levels of enthusiasm vary across the 25 different markets, 54 percent on average claim that it is a priority for them to live in a way that is good for themselves, good for other people, and good for the environment. At the same time, only 6 percent of consumers globally say that they are currently living in a way that is fully healthy and sustainable. They’re stuck.
This intention-action gap presents an opportunity for organisations such as Consumers International, and of course governments and companies, to help consumers change their behaviors to better reflect their values and aspirations. Organisations can also help inspire the one-third of consumers globally who are currently lukewarm about living a healthy and sustainable lifestyle (34%), but who welcome the notion.
2. Healthy and sustainable lifestyles need to be accessible
Why is there such a large gap between consumers’ intentions to live in ways that are healthier and more sustainable and how they actually live and consume? In our research, we found that most consumers are hindered by the current price point of sustainable options, with lack of affordability presenting a strong barrier to consumers in wealthy as well as emerging markets.
These findings emphasise the importance of doing away with the notion of a sustainability price premium if we are to make sustainable consumption at scale possible. Companies will need to innovate to bring affordable solutions to consumers, by embracing the principles of circular economies and the material savings they can bring, for example. Look to IKEA, which is doing this by offering affordable and more sustainable products to 170 million customers now. The bigger picture? IKEA intends to use its reach to inspire and enable more than one billion people to live better lives within planetary limits by 2030.
Consumers also point to a lack of support from government and companies as important reasons why they are not able to live as healthily and sustainably as they would like to, showcasing how crucial strong government leadership is. In the end, though, it is brands that connect more closely with consumer lifestyles.
3. Brands can earn loyalty by taking a stand
Solutions require that we all win – people, the companies they patronise, and the planet. Our research finds that buying from brands that are environmentally or socially responsible, and supporting brands that advocate for healthy and sustainable living, are among the actions consumers most connect with living a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. In other words, consumers right now are very receptive to companies that demonstrate that they are sustainable and that take a strong public stand around health and sustainability. They feel that supporting these brands will make their own lifestyles more healthy and sustainable.
What’s more, majorities of consumers, especially younger generations, report that their loyalty to a brand is influenced by a desire to make a positive impact in their community or in the world, and to be part of a movement bigger than themselves. It’s no surprise, then, that the percentage of people across 25 countries who say they have considered rewarding socially and environmentally responsible companies in the past year (though purchase or recommendation) is up by a dozen percentage points – the highest we have ever seen it (34%).
4. Start with the way we eat
But where to start when it comes to engaging with consumers? Our analysis finds that healthy eating creates the strongest cognitive link to a sense of healthy and sustainable living, and that the latter results in an increase in perceived quality of life. Eating organic food is also relatively strongly connected in people’s minds to being healthy and sustainable. But, consumers need companies to help them make it easier to do so, especially since organic food is still not accessible or affordable for most. Vegetarian or vegan diets are relatively less associated with being healthy and sustainable, but this is an area where companies can help mobilise consumer behavior by providing better access to affordable plant-based options.
By exciting consumers about the connections between wellness and environmentally sustainable diets while making sure that options like organic produce or plant-based alternatives are widely accessible, companies can help drive wider behavior change among consumers by making it easier for them to take the first steps toward a sustainable lifestyle through the food they consume. So long as it tastes great, feels good, and doesn’t bust the budget, that is.
5. Focus on young consumers
Finally, we find that younger generations of consumers are the most motivated to make changes, but they also need the most help to do so. Those younger than 25 are the most likely to tell us that they are worried about environmental problems. They also tend most to feel guilty about their own impacts. Young people feel more anxious and stressed out than all others. We believe this is partly related to their fears about the future of their environment. Altogether a decidedly unhealthy combination.
Young consumers are also less likely than those in older age groups to think that they are living in a way that is healthy and sustainable, and they are more likely than others to say that they lack information to help them do so.
Herein lies another opportunity (and obligation) for influential organizations to demonstrate leadership, build trust and earn enduring loyalty by empowering young people to more easily activate their values.
The world needs it urgently.