As part of Google U.K.'s strategic insights team, Gerald Breatnach and Liz Cracknell use consumer research and data to provide insight on the biggest questions facing marketers.
Sustainability is a priority for businesses around the world, but consumer needs and expectations on environmental issues vary greatly from country to country.
Over the past year, Google’s strategic insights and consumer insights teams worked with research partner Ipsos to understand what sustainability means to people in the U.K. We analysed Google Search data across 16 product categories and conducted in-depth interviews, focus groups, and a quantitative survey of more than 1,700 U.K. adults.
Below, we share three key insights from that research and explore what they mean for marketers.
Insight 1: People care deeply, but are drawn towards the most accessible actions
Our quantitative analysis shows that the majority of the U.K. population is worried about the planet’s future. In our surveys, 78% of U.K. adults agreed climate change was as big a concern as the cost-of-living crisis.1 That compares to 68% of U.S. adults.2
The human cost proves particularly emotive, with 80% of people agreeing they feel the responsibility to look after the environment for their families and future generations.
As consumers face rising costs and other pressures, businesses have to do their part in advancing sustainable solutions and making them accessible to everyone.
However, things like topic complexity, diverse pockets of knowledge, or not wanting to trade-off on price, quality, and functionality, mean that people often prioritise the actions that are more accessible, such as recycling or installing low-energy lightbulbs, rather than more difficult or costly options like not driving or using an electric car.3
What it means for marketers
Our research suggests that sustainability messaging works best as a co-benefit. It’s often not enough to shape purchase decisions alone, but when combined with other attributes such as quality and price, it can act as a tiebreaker for potential buyers.
This backs up what we’ve heard from marketers — that behavioural change is lagging behind consumer sentiment. Brands must help people choose the more sustainable option by engaging them on the topic, guiding them along the path to purchase, and making their buying decision easier.
Ikea, for example, nudges customers towards more sustainable behaviour throughout the buying journey, providing tips on how to extend the life cycle of a product as well as online filters for environmentally friendly options.
Insight 2: There’s a striking difference in the perception of sustainability across product categories
We examined a wide range of categories and found significant differences between them. For example, sustainability is far more likely to influence people buying a physical product such as groceries or clothing than services such as broadband, insurance, or banking.
When asked whether sustainability was an important influence, 64% of people agreed it was for purchasing products vs. just 47% for buying a service.4 This is likely because people generally find it harder to connect sustainability to less tangible purchases.
What it means for marketers
For the service sector in particular, there is a strategic choice to be made — invest in educating people on what sustainability looks like or pause sustainability marketing and risk being out-manoeuvred by other players in the longer term.
For tangible products such as food, fashion, or cars, there is a greater opportunity for proactive positioning and competitive advantage in the near term. Take Oda, a Norwegian online supermarket, which started adding an estimated carbon footprint to shop receipts and immediately saw a drop in the number of carbon-intensive products sold.
Insight 3: Trust needs to be earned
Just as people may misunderstand how sustainability impacts different categories, perceptions of it also vary greatly among different audiences. As part of the research, an Ipsos segmentation divided respondents into different groups based on their attitudes towards sustainability.
Results showed that, while most people are conscious of the challenges and taking limited actions such as recycling, a lack of knowledge and the complexity of the problem mean that just 16% of respondents consider themselves as highly engaged, stating they “want to do as much as they can” and believe they “can always do more”.
To overcome resistance, brands should be open to sharing their sustainability credentials for their products, their processes, and the progress they themselves are making.
In addition to building knowledge and making it easier for people to make sustainable choices, brands must build trust by demonstrating progress and taking people on the journey with them.
What it means for marketers
It’s possible for mass-market brands to engage people who aren’t already actively making sustainable choices. But this involves building trust over time — with potentially cynical audiences.
To overcome resistance, brands should be open to sharing their sustainability credentials for their products, their processes, and the progress they themselves are making. This can be done most effectively through clear, simple, and relatable communication.
Finally, any green claims need to be backed by strong oversight and quantifiable data to avoid potentially damaging accusations of greenwashing.
Leading the way on sustainability
While many people have adopted micro habits such as recycling and reusing plastic, they are yet to commit to more challenging lifestyle changes that promise a bigger positive impact.
As consumers also face rising costs and other pressures, businesses have to do their part in advancing sustainable solutions and making them accessible to everyone. Ultimately, this will empower consumers to shift their behaviours in the right direction.