From plogging to veganism: Is sustainability the new normal for consumers?

As eco-consciousness goes mainstream in some countries, consumers don’t just expect brands to be sustainable, they expect them to be ‘regenerative’, a new report has found. But does this ring true in Asia?

Sustainability has become an imperative for consumers. More than nine in ten (92 per cent) of consumers across four global markets—Australia, China, United Kingdom and the United States—claim to be trying to live more sustainably, according to the study The New Sustainability: Regeneration by advertising agency JWT.

Once deemed ‘hippy’, sustainability has finally hit the mainstream of consumerism, the study finds. 89 per cent of consumers say they care personally about protecting the environment. Veganism is becoming increasingly popular—in China, veganism is expected to rise by 17 per cent by 2020—the topic of single-use plastics is causing a stir, and consumers are rejecting the use of plastic straws. Community-driven initiatives such as ‘plogging’ have also started to pop up. This latest sustainable fitness craze originating from Sweden involves picking up litter while jogging.

The sustainability movement isn’t just benefiting the planet, it’s influencing how people view each other, with 79 per cent stating that caring for the environment is a quality they look for in a partner.

A change in consumers’ value systems is behind the shift in mindset. Results from the JWT study of 2,001 people suggest that instead of being motivated by vanity, narcissism or the reception of praise; personal values, a sense of duty and moral obligations are the driving force behind an increased sense of responsibility towards the environment. This aligns with the most common association of the word sustainability amongst respondents: “responsible”.

But does the notion of being responsible for the environment translate to action on the part of the consumer? For most, sustainable living is often still an aspiration rather than a lifestyle commitment, the study finds.

Companies are uniquely placed to drive change… Today, major businesses possess unparalleled scale and power, and the potential to use their resources for good.

The New Sustainability: Regeneration report

While consumers might be willing to take baby steps and adopt smaller lifestyle changes such as dropping plastic straws, other old habits die hard. 64 per cent of people say they like the idea of a car-free city, but 55 per cent confessed they love their car and would never stop driving. This behaviour gap could simply be due to the lack of accessible alternative options in the marketplace, which make it harder for consumers to stick to their original, more righteous, intentions. 

The new sustainability study: key stats

1. Brands need to adopt regenerative, not just sustainable, practices to appeal to the modern consumers

2. 92 per cent claim to be trying to live more sustainably. 

3. 79 per cent of respondents say that caring for the environment is a quality they look for in a partner.

4. 90 per cent feel that companies/brands have a responsibility to take care of the planet and its people.

5. 86 per cent think that companies/brands that continue to deplete finite resources are stealing from the future.

6. 86 per cent believe there’s not enough information on products for consumers to assess how sustainable they are.

7. 64 per cent always scrutinise the labels for sustainable credentials when shopping.

8. 77 per cent believe that products with a negative environmental impact should cost more. 

Although the majority of statistics represent the four countries as a whole, there are key differences in consumer mindsets between countries.

British consumers are highly concerned about single-use plastics, with 60 per cent believing that products are over-packaged, compared to the average 51 per cent.

Australian consumers care about sustainability, but are not willing to part with their money—85 per cent say they should not have to pay more for sustainable products. 

American consumers are the least concerned about sustainability—20 per cent think climate change is not a problem, instead of the average 11 per cent.

Chinese consumers are highly aware of the need to protect the environment but one-third of respondents think it is too much effort. 

But when it comes to barriers to living sustainably, consumers across the four different markets echoed similar sentiments—the main concerns being cost and convenience. “Convenience is absolutely key,” says Hege Sæbjørnsen, country sustainability manager of Ikea Group in the UK. “If it’s not convenient, it’s very difficult to get people to do something.” 

Should governments or businesses take the lead?

Lack of knowledge about what to do to make ethical and environmentally-conscious lifestyle choices is another barrier, the study suggests. Consumers want guidance, and it falls to governments to take the lead in influencing sustainable lifestyles. Several Asian governments such as Malaysia and India have pledged to ban single-use plastics. The Singapore government however, has pushed back against calls for similar action to tackle plastic waste, instead leaving it to businesses to take the lead.

But after governments, survey respondents said they look to businesses as the key drivers of change, with nine out of ten respondents believing that businesses have a responsibility to take care of the planet.

“Companies are uniquely placed to drive change… Today, major businesses possess unparalleled scale and power, and the potential to use their resources for good,” quotes the study. 

Consumers have high expectations of brands, with 92 per cent saying that sustainable practices should be the standard business practice. Consumers can be a huge driving force for corporate sustainability—83 per cent of people say that between two equal brands, they would pick the one with a better record on sustainability.

The study finds that in China, sustainability is associated with the word “quality”, contrasting with the US, UK and Australia where respondents associate it with the word “responsible”.

Numerous food scandals in China have led to food safety being a top priority for Chinese consumers. “Sustainability claims can thus be a shortcut to higher manufacturing standards and processes,” claims the study. 

From sustainability to regeneration

The term ‘sustainable development’ is often regarded as an oxymoron. Now, the new modus operandi for businesses is to be regenerative rather than sustainable, the study suggests. 86 per cent of people think that brands that deplete finite resources are “stealing from the future”, reads the report. Doing less harm is no longer enough—businesses should look to actively do good by restoring the environment.

With the majority of consumers starting to think sustainably, brands are in a position to guide consumers and bridge the gap between intent and reality, the study finds. But while JWT research paints a hopeful picture of emerging consumer mindsets in the US, UK, Australia and China, doubts remain about whether other Asian consumers will pay for sustainable products and services

Sustainability presents companies in Asia with a US$5 trillion business opportunity, according to last year’s Better Business, Better World report. But businesses can only do so much without consumers playing their part. In countries like Singapore, where consumers tend to prioritise cost and convenience—the idea of levies imposed on plastic bags was met with heated backlash—it will take time for the perception that sustainability burns a hole in consumers’ pockets to be broken. 

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