While consumers continue to profess a desire to do the right thing, in reality they often do not – choosing convenience and product performance over higher prices and/or ethical and sustainable production and products. But the values shift accompanying the recession in the west, may be the background against which new approaches to sustainability could flourish by creating win:win strategies and greater clarity.

What is changing?

There has been a values shift since the onset of the recession in western markets. Gone are the heady days of leisure shopping and impulse buying for many, with a desire for brands associated with exclusivity and daring. Enter the new kinder friendlier brands, more connection to community and purpose – especially among Millennials in the USA. Conscience not conspicuousness is also changing the face of luxury and status. (See also Make do and Mend, Normal service will not be resumed shortly 2008).

At the same time, there is a continued disconnect between what we say and what we do as consumers: we talk green and ethical, but tend to act convenience and product attributes. But that is not to say that the desire to do good and feel good is not there. It is. And especially if there is greater transparency about a company’s claims to fairness or more accessible information to reduce confusion – of which there is a lot.

Why is this important?

A recent report values the global ‘green’ market at $3.5 trillion by 2017. Making that a reality may need new responses.

Self interest is a powerful motivator: aligning sustainable with self interest creates win:win potential. Price rises, for food and fuel especially, are affecting consumer behaviour and decisions, for example driving the market for power-meters to help them reduce energy use and costs. Making those and other impacts and costs more real is critical. However, those price rises have to be seen as permanent. In the US, despite higher petrol prices, consumers remain loyal to gas-guzzlers, because, it is claimed, they do not see the price spike as permanent: yet.

Packaging remains a significant bugbear with consumers. However, reduced pack size and a few cents savings on small pouches of concentrated cleaning fluids, which you then empty into your existing bottle / spray and top up with water, only appeal in much poorer markets, for now. The UK supermarket strap line of ‘every little helps’ may soon be more important. Elsewhere, no packaging food chains are emerging where you bring your own containers and fill them up.

With the rising pressures of feeding and meeting the demands and aspirations of a growing world population and burgeoning middle class, finding solutions to the sustainability conundrum is of rising importance – but for many remains an abstract and distant issue. While corporations remain ahead of consumers in putting sustainability at the centre of their strategies, adapting their supply chains to reduce costs and environmental impacts etc, this may be another area where the frugal innovation models of emerging market producers are more successful than western companies. For them, lean and mean is a way of life. Low cost and low impact could go hand in hand and appeal to the newly cost conscious west, as well as help them do the right thing. In an era of slower growth and less consumer spending, engaging with a wider range of consumer values will be critical to market success.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.