The state of sustainability today: Nearly all consumers are involved in some way

As with many consumer-driven mega-trends that have achieved mainstream stature following years of lurking on the fringes of culture (consider: online grocery shopping, organics or wellness), consumer involvement with all things “sustainable” is now at an all-time high. 

Building on over twenty years of examining the topic, The Hartman Group’s Sustainability 2017: Connecting Benefits with Values Through Personal Consumption report finds that 87% of adults are inside what we refer to as the World of Sustainability, meaning that sustainability-related concerns impact their values, attitudes, and actions in at least some measure.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Culturally, we have a long history of discussing the many environmental, social and economic matters that coalesce under sustainability. Today, partly due to the current political moment, we find that various environmental and social justice issues have become household talking points, regardless of political affiliations. Media headlines and the increasing accessibility of products with sustainable features and benefits have also increased consumer awareness of sustainability.

Specifics that drive sustainability discussions and awareness abound: Debate around the Paris Climate Accord, record-breaking weather events, and natural disasters have brought global warming home for many consumers in a much more tangible way than in the past. Increasing awareness of economic inequality, health coverage, and the role of immigration in our economy has brought labor issues back to the forefront.

At a baseline, consumers across the political spectrum care about sustainability, though the issues they prioritize may differ. Conservatives often place a higher value on economic factors, while liberals are drawn to social issues. For many consumers, especially millennials, sustainability-related attributes in foods and beverages like organic, grass-fed, or plant-based are important quality cues.

Compared to years past when sustainability tended to infer mainly eco-friendly or environmental paradigms, in 2017, we find that consumers view sustainability much more holistically. This holistic view encompasses interconnected sets of issues related to being both a responsible consumer and a responsible citizen. While retaining strong environmental associations, sustainability also overlaps with personal benefits, especially those related to health and wellness.

Concerns about animal welfare and its impact on personal health and food quality are still high, even if the trend line has not significantly grown. As antibiotic- and hormone-free animal products have become easier to find, it’s likely that many consumers feel they are taking appropriate action in buying those products. Animal welfare is an important pathway into the world of sustainability for many consumers. Though most are driven by personal health concerns related to antibiotics or hormones, the morality of animal welfare helps reinforce attitudes and behaviors.

Looking Ahead

From a consumer perspective, sustainability is a complex term that incorporates not only the environment but also how humans interact and fit within it. Even unengaged consumers recognize connections between personal benefits and wider social, economic, and environmental issues. Reflecting interconnections between these issues, consumers are remarkably consistent in which sustainability attributes they value across categories, retailers, and restaurants: Top issues include avoidance of toxins, animal welfare, fair labor practices, and minimizing pollution.

Openness and honesty are becoming the currency of trust for consumers who care about sustainability. They want to see corporate responsibility efforts that indicate an authentic commitment to ethical action — especially on-pack.

Transparency is particularly key for retailers, whom consumers view as arbiters of sustainability standards and curators of sustainable products. Retailer context thus makes a big difference in building trust with sustainability consumers.

Turning intentions to deeds, consumers are becoming more purposeful in their consumption. Though the gap between aspiration and action varies with consumers’ level of engagement with sustainability, we see this “conscious consumerism” only gaining power and momentum in the future.

As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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