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Shoppers Expanding Their Definitions of Sustainability: Survey

Fairness and corporate citizenship are becoming bigger factors in purchasing decisions.




Shoppers Expanding Their Definitions of Sustainability: Survey

(PRESS RELEASE) NEW YORK — This Earth Day, Americans see the progress made in corporate sustainability, but are looking for companies to further step up their efforts. At the same time, consumers have an expanded definition of sustainability, with social factors increasingly powerful in driving sustainable purchasing decisions.

That’s according to a survey of 1,923 US adults conducted by The Conference Board in collaboration with The Harris Poll. Key insights are featured in two reports on consumers’ sustainability priorities and their view of progress across sectors.

For consumers, sustainability means not only climate and conservation but also fairness and corporate citizenship.

“For today’s consumers, sustainability increasingly means not only climate and conservation but also fairness and corporate citizenship,” said Denise Dahlhoff, Senior Researcher at The Conference Board. “Our study reveals how these perceptions and attitudes are uneven across demographic groups, with younger and urban consumers most receptive to sustainability messages. It paints a rich, granular picture of the features that can drive more consumers to consider buying sustainable products going forward.”

“Our research with The Conference Board reinforces the unique sustainability inflection point we’re seeing with American consumers,” said Rob Jekielek, Managing Director at The Harris Poll. “An organization’s environmental footprint and impact still matter, but treatment of employees and the workforce is rapidly emerging as a new core pillar and proof point for showcasing an organization’s sustainability impact today.”

Fairness and Demography: Sustainability Factors that Move Consumers’ Choices


One of the two reports, Sustainability Features That Sway US Consumers Are Changing, examines what motivates consumers most to buy sustainable brands. While environmental topics—climate, pollution, conservation—tend to be most associated with sustainability, these factors aren’t necessarily what drive sustainable purchases:

  • Consumers increasingly view sustainability in terms of all-around corporate citizenship. Two years ago, sustainability was largely equated with environmental friendliness. Today, fair prices and fair wages have joined conservation, climate change, and alternative energy among the top five features consumers selected from a list of associations with sustainability.
  • In fact, “fairness” writ large—fair prices, fair wages, fair working conditions—now leads the list of sustainability features most likely to influence a consumer’s choice to buy a sustainable brand. With this in mind, brands have an opportunity to better communicate about worker welfare, which could yield incremental purchases and greater willingness to pay a price premium. Communications can include messages about worker welfare and labor conditions on packaging and product labels, as well as pictures and videos of workers to create a human connection.
  • Responsiveness to particular sustainability features is strongly shaped by consumer demographics. Opinions diverge most sharply by political leaning, followed closely by urbanicity level, age, and race. Other divides like income and gender are much less stark.
  • Climate change offers a case in point regarding demographic divides. More than 70% of urban and Gen Z respondents say a brand’s actions on climate would influence their purchasing choices “very much” or “quite a bit.” The proportion drops to under 45% among rural and Boomer respondents. By contrast, the gaps between men and women and high- and low-earners are relatively minor.

Grading Sustainability Progress Across Industries

The second of the two reports, US Consumers Want Business to Do More on Sustainability, reveals how consumers view the progress made on sustainability across an array of industries:

  • As in 2019, consumers continue to see utilities, technology, and food companies as leaders in sustainability. A more eclectic list—home builders, automakers, restaurants, pharmaceutical makers, and home appliance makers—follows close behind.
  • However, consumers believe every industry, government department, and NGO can do more—even those whose performance they already rank highest today. For example, while 48% believe utility companies are making a positive impact today, 73% believe they need to change to become sustainable.
  • In short, no company can afford to rest on its laurels; consumers are likely to expect faster progress moving forward. Partnering with established or emerging initiatives and—even more—showing a willingness to collaborate with competitors for the common good can signal a company’s commitment to stakeholders. Moreover, alliances within and across sectors can lead to cost-effective solutions in the private sector. In addition, partnering with public entities could facilitate better-targeted policies, incentives, and government-supported research, including for big societal challenges such as clean transportation, for example.
  • The recognition of corporate sustainability’s impact has room to grow—especially among certain demographic groups. Older, rural, and white consumers are least likely to believe corporations are making a positive impact—reflecting the demographic divide above. More surprisingly, women are also considerably less likely than men (38% vs 49%) to react positively. These findings indicate a potential for companies to find suitable ways to extend and refine sustainability messaging beyond the younger, more urban consumers already on board.



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