Overcoming the sustainability paradox to drive real change

30 November 2021 Consultancy.com.au 4 min. read
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Whilst some Australians thought the pandemic would put sustainability on the backburner, research from InSites Consulting has found the opposite is true. Actual change however continues to lag – Erica van Lieven, Managing Partner of InSites Consulting in Australia, outlines how this sustainability paradox can be overcome in order to drive real change.

Through proprietary research in the Australian market before and during Covid-19, we witnessed the growing importance of sustainability to Australian consumers. In fact, 45% of Australian consumers feel the Covid-19 pandemic is a consequence of a global eco-disbalance, the globalised economy, and food chain problems.

The pandemic has also had an impact on people’s perception of sustainability, with 62% of Aussies saying the Covid-19 lockdown made them revalue nature and the importance of clean air.

Overcoming the sustainability paradox to drive real change

The topic continues to grow in importance both locally and globally, as people increasingly understand how essential our natural environment is for sustaining our well-being. Our research has shown that 66% of Australian consumers share a feeling of concern about wasting the planet’s resources.

Despite this, Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier every year (22nd March 2021 in Australia), meaning that most Aussies aren’t acting upon their eco-anxiety. So where does the problem lie, and what’s creating this sustainability paradox?

The sustainability paradox

A first driver is the fact that sustainability is a holistic, all-embracing concept, making it a very complex matter for consumers. An overload of claims and labels around sustainability only adds to this complexity, fuelling consumers’ eco-confusion. According to the global Ecolabel Index, more than 455 eco-labels are used in 199 countries across 25 industries. This surplus in sustainability claims not only confuses consumers, it also makes them doubt how trustworthy they are.

In fact, 76% of Australian consumers believe there should be more reliable and accessible ways to evaluate whether a brand is sustainable or not. If organic products are packaged in plastic, for example, are they considered sustainable? Consumers’ eco-confusion is further fuelled by a lack of awareness of what brands are doing – 83% of Aussies could not name a single ‘sustainable brand’ when asked.

A second dimension driving the sustainability paradox is the so-called ‘say-do gap’, where intentions are high, but actual behaviour is low. Research cited by Harvard Business Review has shown that although 65% of consumers say they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, only 26% actually do.

What’s holding people back?

In our Conscious Consumption report, we identified four key barriers that are holding consumers back: affordability, accessibility, performance, and convenience. Although more than 61% of Australian consumers express the willingness to change their habits, this does not happen from one moment to the next. Many aspects of our lives run on autopilot, including most decisions we take daily.

Brands can play an important role here, in both breaking down the barriers to sustainability, and helping consumers form new habits. With national leadership on sustainability lacking in Australia (63% of Australian consumers believe the government is not doing enough), 76% of Aussies feel brands have a responsibility to take care of the planet.

Brands need to adapt to these new consumer expectations and norms, starting with choosing the right ESG mission and communicating about its ambitions in a credible way. Next, it’s also important to engage the workforce in the mission, and make sure the brand’s ESG mission triggers a genuine interest among consumers. It should be something they can relate to and be enthusiastic about.

The Conscious Consumption report demonstrates that Australians want businesses and brands to step up; we need to solve our problems with ingenuity. Research has shown that companies that successfully match customers’ sustainability expectations are rewarded with a higher revenue growth and more customer loyalty. This is a call for action. The time for brands to act is now, because in the end, good business is good business.