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Bridging the Sustainability Intention-Action Gap: Overcoming Barriers to Adoption of Greener Products and Services

Green electric car charging sign

The United States has just wrapped up its hottest summer on record, with part of the country experiencing record drought and firestorms, while much of the rest suffered through extreme heat and devastating flooding. Globally, July 2021 was the warmest month on record. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on the state of the planet, noting many of the changes that are occurring in the climate are unprecedented in recorded history.

Given such salient reminders of growing peril, one might imagine that the number of people concerned about environmental degradation would be increasing and that many would recognize that changing personal consumption behavior may be key to solving the existential challenges that we are facing.

Opinion polling in recent years supports these suppositions. In the US most people believe global warming is occurring, realize it is caused by human activity, and are concerned about it. Many are very worried and believe people are already being harmed by it. Most people believe the government isn’t doing enough to protect the environment, and a majority claim to be trying to change their lifestyles to lessen their impacts.

Similar sentiments are shared by the majority in the EU, where climate change, air and water pollution, and the growing amount of consumer waste are top-of-mind issues, and where most also acknowledge that this degradation is a direct result of consumer habits. Globally, 80% of consumers claim they feel strongly that companies have a responsibility to help protect and improve the environment. A majority even claim they are willing to pay more for sustainably produced products.

For example, in 2020 the research firm Globescan and partner organizations representing major consumer brands (including such heavyweights as Ikea, Pepsico and Visa) conducted a survey across 27 countries that was intended to help organizations better understand barriers to more sustainable consumer behavior. Over 50% of respondents rated as “very serious” issues such as environmental degradation, pollution, climate change, and plastic waste. Almost three quarters of respondents indicated that consumption habits will need to change to reduce their environmental impacts – a significant increase over the prior year. And half of all respondents reported a strong desire to change their own lifestyle to be more environmentally friendly.

Yet there isn’t much evidence that this increase in pro-environmental concern is leading to proportional changes in pro-environmental behaviors. When respondents in the study were asked if, over the past year, they had actually modified their consumption behavior to align with their pro-environmental intentions, only 25% indicated that they had in fact made such changes. Given the pro-social response bias inherent to most research on consumer attitudes, it is reasonable to assume that even that small number was likely inflated. And objectively, despite such self-report data, plastic waste continues to pile up, vehicle miles traveled is steadily increasing, biodiversity continues to decline, and emissions continue to rise.

This gap between the intentions people have to engage in more sustainable consumption and their actions in that regard has been repeatedly observed and much discussed. Some of the factors that contribute to it are not surprising either from a commonsense perspective or in terms of what we have learned from the brain and behavioral sciences about how people make choices both in the laboratory and in everyday life.

Take pricing for example. Past market research has indicated that survey respondents, especially younger ones, claim that they would be willing to pay more for sustainable products.  Accordingly, brand marketers often infer that they have licence to engage in premium pricing for such items. Yet many potential consumers can’t afford that premium. And multiple studies have indicated that consumer perception of excessive prices relative to conventional alternatives is one of the major barriers to broader adoption of “green” products and services, especially when the purported additional benefits of such products are hard to verify and any added value from the purchase is potentially distant in time and space.

To accelerate adoption of sustainable products, brands need to adopt more of a customer lifetime value mindset and price sustainable options affordably in order to convert new customers (and ultimately win more brand loyalists) by helping them to select a greener alternative in the short term.

Similarly, the amount of mental effort required to make a decision in the marketplace is often experienced as a “cost” in much the way that a high price is. Potential green consumers also frequently cite issues related to increased mental effort requirements as barriers to sustainable consumption. These include the effort required to judge relative value, quality, and efficacy compared to alternatives, especially in the absence of expertise to choose among those options, as well as the effort required to gauge trust in the manufacturer and the product claims they are making.

Brand marketers need to ensure that the sustainability claims that they make are clear, intuitive, and easily verifiable, while investing in educating consumers on the importance and value of making purchase decisions that have both immediate and future benefits.

A third issue often cited as problematic for the switch to more sustainable consumption is the cost that consumers experience when asked to switch product choices away from existing habitual preferences. Habits provide savings to consumers in terms of reduced effort, reduced errors in decision-making, and reduced regrets from choosing a sometimes less satisfying alternative. Exploring the new requires overcoming a great deal of status quo inertia and resistance to change in existing behavior patterns, and thus habits can serve as a formidable barrier to switching. While this presents a real challenge for brands seeking to introduce novel green products into the marketplace, it represents an opportunity for brand category leaders to further lock in their customers by increasing the sustainability profile of their products and packaging - and thereby decreasing the likelihood that their increasingly concerned customers might be tempted to defect to a greener competitor in the first place.