Here’s one good thing that’s come out of recent years: sustainability went mainstream. With more and more extreme weather events and mounting evidence of climate change, consumers are taking the environment—and the role they play in maintaining it—seriously.
According to our March 2021 study1, 44% of consumers say they care about environmental issues much more today than they did a year ago. In addition, they are taking concrete steps to make a difference. Two in five consumers say they are reducing their use of single-use plastics, and one in five are regularly composting food waste.
This emphasis on a values-driven marketplace has helped spur consumer brands into action. Leading companies have pivoted to show their commitment to sustainability and have taken real steps to develop products and packaging that support the environment.
According to the Consumer Brands Association, the 25 largest consumer goods companies have made a commitment to increase recyclable content, minimize packaging, or reuse material. In fact, 80% of those companies are working toward fully recyclable packaging for all of their products by 2030, if not sooner.
“Consumers are incredibly smart and see through 'BS' really quickly. There is so much noise and every brand says they are sustainable right now. We had to cut through the noise.”
Joey Zwillinger, CEO, Allbirds
Consumer values drive purchase intent
While consumers may say they care, the real challenge for brands is determining whether that awareness drives purchase habits. Will consumers seek out and pay a premium for sustainable products? And, what demographics are willing to change their purchase habits over sustainability?
In our March study, four out of five consumers said they had made purchase decisions based on their values in the past year. In addition, over three-quarters of consumers said it’s worth it to pay more for environmentally-friendly products, and 72% are willing to pay more for food that is sustainably-produced.
Over three-quarters of consumers say it's worth it to pay more for environmentally-friendly products.
But in a separate study2 launched in June 2021, we discovered that sustainability and brand transparency rank near the bottom of all purchase drivers. A full 71% of consumers ranked product quality as the No. 1 purchase driver, with sustainability coming in at No. 6 (24%). Affordability was the No. 2 driver, with over half of all consumers ranking it as important.
However, the importance of purchase drivers varied significantly by generation. Millennials ranked sustainability as 4th on the list of purchase drivers, with 30% ranking it as important compared to 20% of GenX and Boomers.
Compared to the general population, product quality matters less to GenZ, while affordability, sustainability, and brand authenticity matter more. Almost a third of GenZ said brand authenticity was a purchase driver compared to 21% of Boomers.
But younger generations aren’t the only ones voting for their values with their purchasing power. When asked if they had ever boycotted a brand because of its social or political views, 50% of Boomers said they had, compared to 36% of GenZ and 40% of Millennials.
“It’s clear that brands now are being asked to do much more than just brand their products. Customers are taking the extra step to ask, 'Hey, what is this company all about?'.”
Antoine Andrews, chief diversity and social impact officer, SurveyMonkey
Where to invest and who to target
Some brands, like Allbirds and Burt's Bees, have baked sustainability into their DNA. These brands have the luxury of investing in or even creating new trends based on the known preferences of their customer set.
For other brands, determining the value of shifting to a more sustainable message, product, or packaging requires insights. For example, established brands may uncover opportunities to attract a new audience with an environmentally-based package, as Procter and Gamble did with Old Spice and Secret, its well-entrenched deodorant brands.
Two examples of how to uncover the value of sustainability
Brands have access to agile solutions that can help them test sustainability initiatives before going to market. We conducted our own studies to find out how three different sustainability initiatives would play in the market. Here’s what we learned:
1. Collect category-specific insights instead of relying on broad trends
Sustainable messages and packaging have become increasingly complex. Consumers are confused by the many packaging options, which can include recyclable, reusable, compostable, or made from recycled materials. For brands competing against quickly-changing narratives, incorporating the most meaningful sustainability message can give products a competitive edge.
For example, we ran a study using our Message Testing solution to collect insights on how consumers would respond to packaging sustainability claims. Through our results, which we collected in a matter of hours, we discovered which claims resonated, signaling consumers’ preferences and priorities. This type of study can help brands play to consumers’ wants and create better, more appealing products. Plus, brands can further analyze results against hundreds of demographic combinations to quickly see which messages each demographic segment preferred.
2. Get consumer feedback on new packaging concepts
Today’s sustainable packaging options aren’t a trivial update; they represent a cultural shift. In many cases, brands are testing the waters on revolutionary packaging materials that will impact the look, functionality, storage, and merchandising opportunities for their products.
Take a study we ran using our Package Testing solution, which focused on a recently announced package for Johnnie Walker Black scotch whiskey. The new bottle is the world’s first 100% plastic-free, paper-based spirits bottle, made entirely from sustainably-sourced wood.
In our test, the new packaging performed significantly better than existing packaging when it came to attributes like “eye-catching,” “Innovative,” “Unique,” and “Stands out.” However, the new and existing packaging scored similarly for purchase intent (49% vs. 47%). This could represent that while the new package may not drive more sales, it also will likely not hurt existing sales—while improving brand perceptions on “Innovative.”
As consumer purchase decisions are increasingly influenced by a brand's sustainability values, it's important to create an ongoing framework for staying on top of consumer trends and making the right moves for your market. Learn more about SurveyMonkey market research solutions, including Package Testing and Message Testing.
1Methodology: This study was conducted using Momentive Market Research Solutions in March 2021 to collect a sample of 1,097 adults in the US. The sample was balanced for age, gender and US. Region according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
2Methodology: This Momentive study was conducted between June 15-22, 2021 among a national sample of 5,934 adults. Data were weighted for age, race, sex, education, and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the US.