Sustainability: Today’s Hot Topic and Tomorrow’s Problem
“The most environmentally friendly product is the one you didn’t buy.”
Navigating the ever-changing world of sustainability can be a bit of a minefield – sometimes doing the right thing at the time can be proven to be pointless, or even detrimental, further down the line. A good example of this being when McDonald’s, in a move to be more eco-friendly, announced it would cut plastic straws from its locations in the UK, replacing them with a paper alternative.
But there was a problem…where the old plastic straws could be recycled, the new paper ones couldn’t. So customers were told to just put them in the general waste.
The lesson – don’t destroy trees to save the ocean.
Even the meaning of the word can change depending on who you’re talking to, or what you’re talking about. The context that most people use it for is:
“The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.”
And this is the definition we’ll be using throughout this article.
We asked 500 of our younger panellists, specifically those aged 18 to 24, what topics are most important to them and/or hold a special place in their heart. The responses, as you’d expect, were incredibly diverse, but the one theme that came out on top was ‘sustainability’.
With this in mind, we wanted to delve a little deeper and find out what exactly they meant by ‘sustainability’, and why it was important to them that companies and brands were doing the right thing, and equally as importantly, seen to be doing the right thing. After all, perception is reality.
“Companies claim to be sustainable when they are not, and abuse these topics for marketing, greenwashing etc. It's hard to find an actually good company between all the marketing tricks.”
How important is sustainability?
We started off measuring a broad stroke understanding of how important sustainability was to them by asking ‘On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being 'not at all important' and 10 being 'very important, how important do you think it is that people try to lead a more sustainable lifestyle?’.
Unsurprisingly, given we already knew the topic was at least of some importance to them, the mean score was 8 out of 10, with a quarter of people scoring it 10 out of 10 for importance. There was no major difference between the genders or geographically, but interestingly, the most sustainably aware city was Sheffield. Perhaps the proximity to the Peak District (being a popular destination for climbers, runners, cyclists, and walkers), and the abundance of greenbelt land around the city contribute to this.
Understanding how important the issue is amongst this age group confirmed the strength of each individual’s personal opinion on the matter. But how often are they talking about this with their peers? Is it a hot topic which people passionately discuss, or is it more a private matter that people tend to internalise? Well, it turns out people are quite vocal about it all – 58% talk about it with their friends/family members regularly, with 7% discussing it all the time!
Perhaps surprisingly, this topic is discussed more amongst young men than women, with 64% of men talking about it regularly, compared to 54% of women.
Leading a more sustainable lifestyle is a lot easier said than done, but there are a few smaller steps that everyone can take to get started. We asked our panel what actions they had already started to become more sustainable, and the top 3 were:
These are things that I imagine most of you reading this article already do to some extent or other, but there are other areas where our younger panellists have gotten more creative in their sustainability…
A third of participants chose to repair an item rather than buying a new equivalent, and 1 in 5 said that they had both reduced their personal motor vehicle travel and chosen brands that had more ethical values.
Interestingly, women were more likely than men to regularly recycle and reduce food waste, but men were more likely to reduce their motor vehicle travel or switch to a more renewable energy source.
Speaking of more renewable energy, only 17% of millennials have actually switched to this. Surprising, given the benefits of such ‘green’ tariffs being touted by the government and energy suppliers. Perhaps an eye-opener to the powers-that-be that until these schemes come down in cost, and better renewable energy infrastructure is implemented, many people will be voting with their wallets.
What are the barriers?
What can be done to help?
Money isn’t the only barrier to leading a more sustainable lifestyle, but it is the biggest, with just over half of everyone surveyed stating so. The next barrier is that there isn’t enough information about sustainability, which could be a quick win to fix if companies, brands, and regulating bodies (including the government) were clearer on how products and services are to be used correctly to be as sustainable as possible.
One barrier that isn’t as easy to influence is the current economic climate, with a third of people stating this is a main barrier. Rather pessimistically, 15% don’t think that living sustainably makes any difference, with men more likely to think this than women.
So, we now know how important sustainability is to the under-25s, what actions they take to lead more sustainable lives, and what barriers prevent them from being as sustainable as they’d like to be. With this in mind, we wanted to understand what measures could be taken to help combat these barriers.
As is probably no surprise, making it more affordable to choose a more sustainable alternative was number one, with 63% saying so. This was followed by various initiatives around recycling, namely having better schemes to remove plastics and packaging (51%), and more clarity on how to dispose of/recycle old products (38%). Then the next biggest helpful actions all fit under the same umbrella, and link directly to actions that brands and companies, and the regulators that govern them, can control themselves:
“The focus remains on the consumer, rather than the corporation. Therefore, many think it makes no difference, as the individual impact compared to the large scale is deemed insignificant.”
What makes a product sustainable?
So now what?
We also wanted to know what people thought made a product itself ‘sustainable’, and the top answers all related to the material the product is made from (i.e. is it natural material from a renewable resource, is it made from recycled materials etc.), whether it uses minimal or recyclable packaging, and whether it is responsibly sourced.
Not only is sustainability important to the under-25s at a personal level, but it’s also important to them at a commercial one. 67% of our panellists gave a score of 8 or above to the question ‘On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being 'not at all important' and 10 being 'very important', to what extent do you think it is important that companies and brands have sustainable and ethical practices?’.
This ties in nicely with our panellists’ views on trust and sustainability too. When asked how much trust a brand or company generates when committing to sustainable practices, 3 in 5 said it makes them either more, or much more, likely to trust that brand/company.
And ultimately what it boils down to from a commercial perspective is, would people pay more for a product or service that was proven to be more sustainable than its competitors? Well, this is where things get a little greyer…
At the extremes, 22% said a definite ‘Yes, I try to be more sustainable wherever I can - money is no object’, and 16% said ‘No, I'd buy the cheaper, less sustainable product/service’. The majority of people fell somewhere in the middle, with 54% saying ‘Probably, I try to be more sustainable where I can, but we'd have to weigh up the cost/benefit’. So the intention is there, but as we touched on earlier, cost is that biggest barrier.
It’s great to see that sustainability is such an important and engaging topic for the younger generation. Its high importance is understandable too, since this is the group who will be most adversely affected by the damaging impacts of climate change.
Sustainability has long been one of those topics that people think other people are interested in, but it’s great to have those thoughts confirmed by this piece of research. Indeed, it is of course an important and relevant subject, and one which businesses and brands need to get behind if they want to attract and retain customers under the age of 25.
The fact that almost 60% of younger panellists are more likely to trust a company that has sustainable practices speaks volumes, and as we know through other internal research, that trust impacts customer loyalty, which has been proven to drive increased sales and repeat business.
But let’s not forget the overarching point of all this sustainability…it isn’t to increase company profits or retain customers (these are merely by-products of doing the right thing), it’s to keep this wonderful planet we all live on as healthy as possible. The United Nations put it best in 1987:
“Sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care and social well-being.”
All the information for this article was gathered using our panel, TLF Panel, through an online survey run in April 2023.