Cost-of-living crisis means sustainability is becoming a luxury of wealthy consumers

Kantar, the world’s leading marketing data and analytics company, today releases Sustainability Sector Index 2022, a landmark study that identifies the ‘burning platforms’ each industry needs to address, alongside consumers’ sustainability attitudes and behaviours.

Based on 33,000 interviews around the world, and mapped against the UN sustainable development goals, the report identifies:

  • 65% of consumers want to do more to be more mindful of the planet and the environment, but their increased cost of living prevents them from doing so.
  • Beyond affordability, lack of knowledge about sustainable alternatives is the main barrier preventing people from living sustainably.
  • Globally, water pollution and child labour and working exploitation are the biggest sustainable issues consumers think companies should worry about.
  • Overpackaging, waste and carbon footprint are the three most common associations for companies in different categories.
  • 29% of consumers globally are ‘actives’, who are prepared to spend more time and effort to reduce their impact on the planet.
  • Reducing food waste, taking reusable bags when shopping, reducing energy at home and recycling are the actions that people are most willing to take to eliminate the waste problem.
  • 47% of consumers say they have stopped buying a product or service because of its impact on the environment or society. This increases to 87% of active consumers.

The study reveals that water pollution and child labour and working exploitation are the biggest sustainable issues consumers want companies to care about globally. Water pollution is considered to be the biggest issue by urban citizens and over-26 year-olds globally, and is the number one concern for the Americas. This is followed by child labour and working exploitation, which is the most disturbing for the population in rural areas, among young people under 25s and in Europe generally.

Top concerns on sustainability (out of 43 topics – Max Diff mean score of importance)

Cost of living impact

Despite the desire to become sustainable – 97% of people are prepared to take action to live a more sustainable lifestyle –price currently is becoming consumers’ main barrier to sustainable living. 68% of consumers believe that products that are better for the environment and society are more expensive​. 65% want to do more to be more mindful of the planet and the environment, but their increased cost of living prevents them from doing so. People in the Americas (70%) feel the most impact on their sustainable behaviour because of the cost of living.

Only one in three (35%) of consumers who are ‘struggling’ with the cost of living actively seek out companies and brands that offer ways to offset their impact on the environment compared to 53% of those who are financially ‘comfortable’. Alongside price, knowing the sustainable alternatives is the second major barrier for sustainable behaviour. 57% feel that it is too difficult to tell which products are good or bad ethically, or for the environment.

Actives vs Considerers

Whilst one-third of the population worldwide is on the fence as to whether they can make a difference through their choices, 29% of consumers globally are among the most active when it comes to sustainability. Europe has the highest proportion of “actives” shoppers, who are much more likely to believe that they can make a real difference through their actions and think they are personally affected by social and environmental issues.

Brand owners should focus on reducing waste and leadership in decarbonization

The study, which is designed to help brands develop ‘sword and shield’ strategies to address consumers’ sustainable concerns, shows that consumers identify different social and environmental issues in different sectors, and they expect companies to tackle these issues. Eliminating waste is at the top of the people’s agenda for brands worldwide. Consumers expect companies in 24 of 38 indicated sectors to address overpackaging, non-recyclable packaging and landfill, overconsumption, and waste.​ Waste and circularity are major topics for most sectors, including Food, Beverages, Retailers, Homecare, Technology, Travel, Luxury, Furniture, Fashion, Personal Care and others.

Decarbonization is second in people’s minds. According to consumers, companies in 15 of 38 sectors have high associations with carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions leading to global warming, including companies working in Travel, Electronic, Motor vehicles, Luxury, Oil and gas, In-home entertainment, Telecom service providers ​and others.

Figure 2. Consumers’ expectations from businesses to lead to a carbon-neutrality

Commenting on the findings, Karine Trinquetel, Sustainability Expert, Global Head of Kantar’s Sustainability Transformation Practice Offer, said:

“Despite all the other crises happening across the world, the desire to become sustainable has not eroded. However, sustainability products too often come at a premium, and that gets in the way of mass adoption. This is common even among the most engaged consumers, 77% of whom believe that sustainable products are more expensive, and price prevents them from doing more for the planet. As a result, sustainability is too often the luxury of the wealthier in society – and businesses miss out on this massive commercial opportunity. To realise the mainstream opportunity, brands must scale up and go to market at a price point the mass market can afford. Beyond price, brands must recognise that consumers have a sophisticated understanding of where brands should be focusing in each sector, and develop sustainability strategies that address these concerns.“

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