Consumers Will Not Save the World:
Why Now Is the Time for a Reset
New findings from the 2023 Healthy & Sustainable Living consumer research program show that we are rapidly approaching a climate tipping point where it is likely that half of the global population will feel they are greatly personally affected by climate change. The proportion that says they feel greatly personally impacted has increased year on year since the start of tracking this metric in 2020, with over four in ten now saying they are greatly affected.
When tracking attitudes around environmental consciousness, there are hints of an increasing sense of disempowerment and a growing reliance on systemic actors like government and industry to take on the burden of addressing climate change and other environmental issues. Over the past five years, there has been an increase in people saying that individuals cannot do much to save the environment, growing from one-quarter in 2019 to one-third in 2023.
While over nine in ten people globally express an interest in healthy and sustainable products, a number of barriers continue to hinder these purchases, including the high cost of living and a lack of support from governments and brands. More than half of consumers say they have seen more sustainable products in the past year, suggesting that the availability of healthy and sustainable options is improving. Sustainable purchasing trends are being driven by young people and those with families.
However, a range of sustainable actions tracked over the past five years shows little meaningful change over time, and slow improvements have mostly stalled completely in the past year. Although a majority of people claim they frequently save energy in their household, recycle, and bring their own shopping bag to the store, the proportions doing so have not increased much since tracking started in 2019, and less frequent but more impactful actions like eating plant-based food or buying used items instead of new ones remain marginal. This suggests a knowledge gap and a huge opportunity for governments and brands to bring together affordability and behavior change on a global scale through educating and engaging people.
While people seem mostly stuck on changing their everyday behavior to become more sustainable, there is some movement toward healthy lifestyles. Over the past two years, people have become slightly more likely to eat healthy food, exercise, and walk or bicycle to get around. They have also become more prone to spending time in nature. The research shows that people clearly recognize that health and sustainability are intertwined.
Brands need to make the connection between health and sustainability as this resonates strongly with consumers. As people become more impacted by climate change, the negative health impacts will become increasingly critical, further driving the importance of this holistic approach that is needed to drive the sustainability agenda.
People are most receptive to information about a brand’s sustainability efforts when it is shown directly on the product packaging, with almost half preferring to see this information this way. Those who have been engaged continue to remain mostly trusting of messages, suggesting brands should confidently continue to communicate their sustainability work and not “greenhush.”
Key findings include:
- 63% of people now say that climate change is a very serious issue compared to 49% in 2003
- 49% of people say a lack of affordability is preventing them from living healthy and sustainable lifestyles
- 60% of people globally say they would like to change their lifestyle “a great deal” to become healthier, but only 30% have made “major changes” to do so
- 40% of people under 30 say that making sure investments are environmentally responsible has a large impact on sustainability compared to 35% of those over 30
- 59% of people under 30 agree that they feel guilty about their own negative environmental impact compared to 46% of those over 30
- 64% of Millennials say living a sustainable lifestyle brings their family closer together compared to 53% of Baby Boomers and older
- 27% of people under the age of 30 say they frequently buy second-hand items compared to 20% of those who are over 30
- 72% of consumers say they would like more information on how companies are making their products better for the environment
- 40% of consumers 30 and older have a large amount of trust in claims of products being “carbon neutral” compared to 35% of those younger than 30
- 45% of consumers have “complete” or a “large amount” of trust in ethical or environmental certification logos compared to 29% who have ”complete” or a “large amount” of trust in messages of products being “natural.”
The 2023 Healthy & Sustainable Living consumer research program was designed and conducted by a range of partners including Akatu Institute, Consumers International, GlobeScan, IKEA, L’Oréal, M&C Saatchi Group, NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, PepsiCo, Visa, and WWF International, among others. The goal of the study is to help organizations better understand the mindsets and behaviors of consumers across the world and help facilitate more healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
Helio Mattar, President of Akatu Institute said: “More than seven in ten people think they are doing all they personally can to protect the environment. But there is much more that could and should be done by consumers when buying, using, and discarding to reach that objective. This reveals an enormous opportunity to educate consumers on the links between the impacts of their consumption on the environment as well as provide access to credible information on the impacts of production on the environment to allow better choices of what products to buy, how to use them, and how to discard them.”
Peter Andrews, Director – Sustainable Consumption, Consumer Rights, Innovation & Impact at Consumers International said: “GlobeScan’s new study highlights that the ever-worsening climate crisis impacts a broader swath of humanity today than ever before, yet people do not feel sufficiently empowered to take action due to challenges resulting from cost of living crises, limited access to better goods and services, and sometimes insufficient or unreliable information. While individual efforts are crucial, they alone cannot propel us toward a 1.5-degree world. Achieving this goal necessitates a holistic transformation with vital policy interventions and forward-thinking business initiatives. Consumers International is working with GlobeScan to complement this latest research to uncover the consumer experience and adapt interventions that put us on track to a low-carbon world.”
Chris Coulter, CEO, GlobeScan said: “We need to shift the narrative from one where the onus is on people to make the right choices to brands taking on more of the burden of enabling consumers to live healthier and more sustainably. Consumers should not have to ‘figure it out,’ they should be able to count on brands to be sustainable by default and count on governments to make the systemic changes needed – with the support of business.”
Pär Stenmark, Chief Sustainability Officer, Inter IKEA said: “The study shows that half of respondents find that the main barrier to living a more healthy and sustainable life is that it’s too expensive. This shows the big opportunity and responsibility that companies have in making healthy and sustainable living more affordable. At IKEA, we want sustainable living to be a default option, both affordable and attractive, and we want to inspire and enable people to reduce their environmental impact at home – from water- and energy-saving solutions to purifying air and eating more plant-based.”
Tom Firth, Founding Partner, M&C Saatchi LIFE said: “With people around the world worried and anxious about the climate crisis, this alarming study suggests it’s less the intention-action gap and more the enablement gap that is holding us back. Without governments and brands stepping up their efforts to actively enable accessible, affordable change at scale, this growing powerlessness and defeatism will snuff out the progress we’ve seen. This study is a call to action for brands to step up and integrate sustainability into the fabric of their everyday offer. The time of using sustainability to sell at a premium is coming to an end. We now need brands to help democratize sustainability by making transformative products and services available and affordable.”
Randi Kronthal-Sacco, Senior Scholar, NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business said: “Brands must play an important role in helping consumers to live more sustainable lives. Nine out of ten people expressing an interest in healthy and sustainable products globally is a significant number and should motivate brands to adopt sustainable supply chains and communicate these benefits to consumers.”
Douglas Sabo, Chief Sustainability Officer, Visa said: “The Healthy & Sustainable Living research clearly demonstrates that a majority of consumers stand ready to adopt more sustainable choices and behaviors. To close the ongoing intention/action gap and empower consumers, we each need to do our part to help make sustainable living more attractive, rewarding, attainable – and generally just simpler, including through using the unique assets and capabilities that each individual company can bring.”
Samantha Putt Del Pino, Global Markets Practice Leader for WWF International said: “To truly embrace healthier and more sustainable living, we need to ensure that consumers aren’t shouldering extra costs for sustainability. Governments must be encouraged to take more substantial, systemic actions and brands should use their opportunity to directly communicate truthfully and accurately to consumers.”
- Stacy Rowland, Director of PR & Communications, GlobeScan
- Tove Malmqvist, Senior Project Manager, GlobeScan
About the Healthy & Sustainable Living Research Program
Launched in 2019, Healthy & Sustainable Living is an annual global consumer insights research program designed to help brands understand shifting preferences and behaviors related to healthy and sustainable living. This research helps organizations learn how to engage consumers on wellness and sustainability issues and enable healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
Building on the insights from the previous Healthy & Sustainable Living Global Consumer Insights studies, a total of around 30,000 people in 31 markets were surveyed about their attitudes, opinions, and behaviors linked to more sustainable and healthier lifestyles. The research was conducted in July and August 2023.
Survey sampling and data collection were achieved using best-in-class online consumer panels in each of the 31 markets and optimized to represent consumers per the latest census data for those aged 18 years and up.
Participating markets include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Egypt, France, Germany, Hong Kong SAR, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, the UK, the USA, and Vietnam.