Can businesses lead the way in encouraging consumers to live sustainable lifestyles?

That's why influential brands and retailers have a good opportunity to help consumers understand the broader impacts of their lifestyles and the products and services they use. And there's good reason for doing so.

Once consumers are happy with the price and quality of a product or service, many increasingly want to be associated with environmental or ethical products that reflect their own values. According to our recent research, which examined how young adults' attitudes towards climate change and carbon footprinting influence their purchasing decisions and brand loyalty, 83% of young people questioned in China, 73% in Korea, 55% in the UK and 57% in the USA all say they would be more loyal to a brand if they could see it was reducing its carbon footprint[1].

A few leading businesses already recognise that becoming consumer mentors on environmental issues helps to build trust and loyalty with their customers. For example Marks and Spencer recently recruited Joanna Lumley as a 'Plan A' ambassador to help raise awareness of sending clothes to landfill. Their 'shwopping' manifesto encourages customers to recycle clothes in store, which are then donated to charity. The Sustainable Restaurants Association enlists celebrity chefs and encourages its restaurants to campaign for environmental issues. Its 'too good to waste' campaign highlights issues of food waste and encourages consumers to take home doggy bags. B&Q is also assessing how it can redesign its home improvement products to incorporate the whole recycling loop.

While these are great examples of companies targeting consumers to highlight specific environmental issues, it remains true that consumers are broadly unaware of the environmental impacts of their lifestyles and most observers agree that the Government isn't likely any time soon to start telling consumers how to live more sustainable lifestyles. However, there is evidence that many consumers would welcome further guidance on how their individual actions can help make a difference. Businesses seem best placed to help raise consumer awareness and understanding and, more importantly, change the way they consume.

Our recent study with Coca-Cola explored the feasibility of Personal Carbon Allowances, which included a four-week consumer trial where a personal carbon allowance of 20Kg CO2 per day was set. The results showed that even when consumers are provided with an environmental context for their lifestyles a number of behavioural issues limit their ability to change. Consumers are more reluctant to compromise on certain lifestyle choices, particularly where food, drink and holidays are concerned. Furthermore, people are creatures of habit, juggling a large number of social pressures, and are often too busy to consider complex sustainability issues.

Some businesses believe that due to this complexity they should be tackling sustainability decisions on behalf of the consumer. However, 'choice editing' doesn't help to address sustainable consumption, if consumers still fundamentally lack knowledge to inform their lifestyle choices. Many leading sustainable retailers sell products that have high embodied Greenhouse Gas emissions without helping consumers understand the context. Providing a context for the environmental impacts of consumers' lifestyles enables them to make trade-offs and balance the impacts of their lifestyles.

Offering this targeted environmental information and building understanding is only the first part of behaviour change.  Unravelling consumers' desires to buy more stuff is an enormously complex and challenging issue! However this is perhaps the simplest and easiest step for consumers and businesses alike on the journey to sustainable consumption.

But what should businesses be doing now? Consumers expect business to be actively reducing their environmental impacts. This means reducing the carbon footprint of their operations, products and services and helping consumers to understand how they can play their part. Businesses at the forefront of this are even rethinking their business models and transforming the development of products and services beyond a 'cradle to grave' approach to a more holistic 'cradle to cradle' ethos,  by creating business models that are not just efficient but essentially waste free.

Marketeers and Brand managers have a crucial role to play in understanding the importance of a lower carbon value chain and finding the right messages to engage consumers in a meaningful way. They need to work with others in the business to identify the most carbon intensive aspects of their products or services, as well as determining what customers expect from their brands and products. Finally, they will want to ask themselves, from a customer communications and sales perspective, what could be the cost of not becoming more sustainable. How much value is at stake from not moving forward with a sustainable agenda? The stakes may be higher than they imagine.


[1] New research examines young adults' attitudes towards climate change and carbon footprinting