Thomas Ebenfeld & Mailin Herbst, concept m
Sustainability has become a buzz word in current political and economic debates. Taking a closer look at the psychological backgrounds however reveals that the definition of the term has changed – and that the fundament of the concept is built on the apparently strong need for making amends.
According to studies two thirds of consumers are generally aware of sustainability.
In the beginning, the term sustainability was coined in an ecological context; it simply meant using raw material and natural resources or manufacturing products without harming the environment in the process. This definition is still prevalent; but today, an economic and social dimension has been added to the concept of sustainability. The “fair trade” movement perfectly illustrates this, focusing mainly on economic relations and social infrastructure on the producer’s side.
According to studies, two thirds of consumers are generally aware of sustainability, while only one third does not care about the topic at all. Certain segments show particular interest, for example young people who are interested in environmental issues, parents (worrying about their children’s future) and educated baby boomers and best agers, who think our environment is undergoing transformation (although this is often just a subjective assessment), want to set a “good example” and change the world for the better. These concerned groups only represent 7-10% of customers, but they are often public opinion leaders or have social influence on another level (teachers, journalists).
A recent study conducted by concept m has shown that the apologists of a sustainable lifestyle often struggle with their attitudes. They tend to doubt their ability to judge the complex relations of the capitalist economy correctly. The question whether a consistently sustainable lifestyle is affordable at all causes discomfort and requires compromises that have to be renegotiated time and again. And in the end, one big worry always remains: Can individual action actually have a real impact on the overall situation?
Products labeled as sustainable are most successful when they provide a very tangible benefit to the customer or at least one they can imagine, and when they get really close to them too. Food, cosmetics, and products for toddlers and children gain considerable advantage from sailing under the sustainability flag.
On this level, the product level, the consumers’ growing need for sustainable goods clearly represents their yearning for a “good” and “undisturbed” world. Consumers want to remain consumers but they also want to make up for their consumption in a way. Just like a burglar does not want to leave any traces, consumers who feel guilty about their consumption are trying to at least not leave any ecological fingerprints.
But on a long-term basis, it is crucial for businesses to think beyond the product level for communication and beyond fields of flowers. They should rather strive to establish strategic sustainability.
Consumers expect large and trust-worthy businesses to proactively face the challenge of sustainability. That allows consumers to delegate their personal conflicts with the issue to the company – which, in their eyes, is much more professional than them. They perceive the company as much more potent and therefore able to make a real difference. This strategic dimension makes it easier for consumers to make purchasing decisions – if the overall strategy is satisfying, it takes the pressure off of individual products.
Promoting sustainability is a way for businesses to underline their expertise and professionalism, it strengthens the general trust in the company as a producer, and the products themselves are rendered more “credible”. In addition to that, a sustainable approach creates greater loyalty to the company that shows it is “loyal to nature and people”. Looking at it from this point of view, turning to sustainability for strategic reasons is an investment that in itself is sustainable for businesses.
About the Authors:
Thomas Ebenfeld is founder and managing partner of concept m research + consulting. He studied psychology and business administration and is an alumni of the Kölner Akademie für Markt- und Medienpsychologie (KAMM) (Cologne Academy for Market and Media Psychology).
Mailin Herbst is Senior Project Manager at concept m. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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