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BCG Investigation Explains Sustainability Values-Action Mismatch

Consumers might be loud and proud about their ‘sustainable values’ but that talk doesn’t always align with their actions, a recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) global study found.

The management consulting giant reported that while up to 80 percent of consumers in its 19,000-person study said they are concerned about sustainability, only 1 to 7 percent pay a premium for sustainable purchases.

One reason for this is growing public distrust around corporate sustainability claims, with 70 percent of the study’s respondents admitting to feeling wary of sustainability claims and commitments. Despondency is also on the rise, with only 20 percent of consumers surveyed saying their personal impact makes a difference.

“It’s easy to interpret these signals as a lack of consumer readiness, but companies will never maximize the potential of sustainable products and services if they focus only on consumers who are willing to pay a premium,” said Aparna Bharadwaj, a BCG managing director, partner, and global head of BCG’s Center for Customer Insight, who co-authored the report. “There’s a significant number of ‘in between’ consumers who are just on the threshold of embracing sustainable products and services. The question is, ‘How do we encourage these consumers to act?'”

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A deeper understanding of consumers’ thoughts and demographics could create more white space for companies and impetus to get more people to choose sustainable over conventional products. For instance, the report found that sustainable behavior varies by market and some consumers are more advanced in specific product and service categories than others. 

Packaging is of most concern for American and Japanese consumers, so apparel in recycled, compostable, or otherwise eco-friendly packages will likely be seen favorably. Another noteworthy finding—and one apparel companies should pay attention to—is that Chinese consumers expressed the greatest concern about sustainability at 93 percent, with apparel called out as a key sector. Consumers in Brazil expressed the second highest level of concern at 89 percent and, among developed markets, Italian consumers showed the highest level of concern at 87 percent. 

Companies can use this data to move toward localized messaging to increase the relevance of their sustainability practices. 

Beyond localization, brands must examine consumers’ reasoning for not purchasing a sustainable product. Some people are price motivated but assume there is a higher “green premium” than actually exists. These shoppers need to have clear and compelling reasons for price differentiations and myth-busting around the idea that sustainable products always cost more. 

This point is compounded by the fact that only 7 to 16 percent of respondents cited sustainability as one of their top three reasons to purchase. Questioned further, however, 20 to 43 percent said they could be persuaded to make sustainable choices if the products or services deliver on other related needs. 

Not only do brands need to be crystal clear about the cost of sustainable products and services, but they should offer up sustainability “in addition to” other benefits, like touting quality or personal health.

“By making the attribute of sustainability an ‘and,’ not an ‘or,’ will be a win-win for everyone, said Lauren Taylor, a BCG managing director and partner and report co-author.