Consumer spending and sustainability

We’re in the middle of the busiest consumption periods of the year. Despite continuing economic problems, this is a time where excessive consumption remains at the forefront. Bombarded by advertising across all channels the message is to buy, buy, buy, even though many are still paying for last year’s festivities.

What happens to thoughts of sustainability at this time of year? Does it register in peoples’ minds as they feverishly shop to get all the latest gadgets, equating increased happiness with the value and volume of presents given and received? Or has the economic crisis generated a more thoughtful response?

Recent surveys provide mixed answers, with OgilvyEarths’s Mainstream Green UK study suggesting that three-quarters of British consumers are not buying into sustainability messages, failing to ignite a move to greener lifestyles. But Re:Thinking Consumption – Consumers and the Future of Sustainability provides more positive insights. This study, developed by BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility, collates data through an online survey with over 6,000 people across six markets – Brazil, China, Germany, India, UK and the US. The focus is on consumer attitudes, motivations and behaviour around sustainable consumption and highlights the views and responses from different parts of the globe.

So while two-thirds across all six markets say ‘as a society we need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations’, consumers in developing countries are twice as likely to  buy products because of environmental and social benefits and are willing to pay more for these products, than those in the developed world.

We’ll be spending a lot of this over the next few weeks


Photo: Rob Wiltshire

Lack of knowledge, scepticism on product reliability and green claims remain key barriers to driving sustainable consumption further – messages companies need to work at to turn this perception around. Respondents see governments, business and consumers jointly taking responsibility for changing the outlook and creating a more sustainable world. And they  identify a range of issues that require action, not just environmental ones, including safe drinking water, health care, fair wages and safe working conditions, jobs and economic opportunities and waste reduction.

We’ve been here before, at different times over the past 40 years there’s been discussion about the impact of manufacturing processes, the materials used in products and our ever-increasing reliance on a throwaway society. The debate is not new but will we see a significant turnaround this time? Consumer spending is what keeps economies going (one could argue that some countries rely too much on this, rather than have a divergent economy) but what approach is needed to make sustainability a core part of this?

I’d suggest tackling scepticism, increasing knowledge and ensuring the real facts are discussed are good starting points. And a greater focus on developing great products and services with a sustainable approach that’s integral, not an afterthought. Changing peoples’ consumption behaviour is going to take time and making it easy for them is just half the battle.


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