German shoppers are “ethical-elites,” while North Americans are “ethical-apathetics,” new sustainability research by The Big Picture reveals

American consumers, who are traditionally considered to be the most sustainability-focused nation, may lose their title, the latest research by The Big Picture shows.

The London and NY teams of the agency have carried out in-depth ethnographic qualitative interviews with consumers in the US, the UK, Germany and Italy to identify how important the sustainability credentials of a product are for them when they make a purchase decision. The research focused on specific categories such as laundry and tea/coffee and included Starbucks, Lipton and Arm & Hammer among other brands.

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In Europe, German shoppers are the most motivated to buy sustainable products, which gives them an “ethical-elites” badge. The UK shoppers rank second as those who prefer sustainable products or those yet to be convinced to buy them. In Italy, shoppers are well-informed of the benefits of green products, however, sustainability is not a priority for them.

Unexpectedly enough, the study also suggests that the US shoppers, called “ethical-apathetics,” rather find it inconvenient that sustainable products are usually isolated in separate aisles in supermarkets, and more time is needed to seek them. Moreover, the researchers admit a general lack of knowledge among US consumers about the benefits of sustainable products. Does that mean that “green” has faded from public concern in the US to be replaced by more pressing issues?

Initially, the sustainability topic became much-discussed in the US consumer space during 2007-2009 but since then “green” as a marketing proposition appeared to have diminish its importance in the wake of recession. Mintel finds that over the past five years, the most sustainability-driven group of the US consumers (the so-called Super/True Green population, according to the agency’s classification) has dramatically declined and the motivation for green behaviour has changed somehow.

In the study, conducted in the US in April 2013, one in five (19%) people said that they regularly buy sustainable products just to improve their own image, as they believed that was important for others to perceive them as being green. Among these respondents, 24% admitted to having purchased a green product just to show others that they are environmentally conscious (vs. a 9% average), and 20% admitted to having concealed recyclable trash in with their regular garbage so that others couldn’t tell they hadn’t separated their recycling (vs. an 8% average).

Another Mintel’s unexpected finding is that Millenials are the largest age group in the US which has moved on from green since 2007, so that they give sustainability issues less attention than they used in the past. Again, the motivation to be recognised as green for a better social status plays a key role here. 14% of 18- to 24-year-old Americans decided to switch to a more sustainable product because of a post by a friend on a social-media site; while 12% of surveyed Millenials admitted to “liking” a brand on Facebook to show that they appreciated the brand’s green practices.

Commenting on The Big Picture’s research, Stuart Costley, Senior Vice President of the company, says:

“In the US, whilst mainstream consumers are beginning to engage with Organic produce, they have little or no desire to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, which is largely due to a lack of direct marketing by government and business to consumers, and the price premium often involved.”

Explaining the motivation of the US consumers “to be seen as green,”  Mintel’s Senior lifestyles and leisure analyst Fiona O’Donnell says:

“Clearly, avoiding a potential negative perception from others drives at least some green behaviors. On one hand, the green movement benefits from the social pressures that many consumers feel to go green. On the other hand, because some consumers are acting in an environmentally friendly manner to avoid a negative stigma—and not truly out of concern for the environment—once the social pressure is removed, green behaviors are less likely to stick.”