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Filling the Sustainable Shopping Cart

In the past few years, we’ve witnessed the emergence and migration of organic products into the mainstream supermarket while at the same time, a larger cultural framework for defining earth-friendly products and initiatives has also been building under the all-encompassing term “sustainability.”

Beneath this sustainability halo there is a lexicon of socially conscious terms like “locally produced,” “organic and natural,” ethically sourced,” “fair trade,” “ethical consumption,” “environmentalism” and “corporate responsibility” that now have become as commonplace in households across America as in corporate boardrooms.

Laurie Demeritt
Laurie Demeritt

While the number of consumers who say they are familiar with the term sustainability has grown from 69% in 2010 to 74% today, heightened familiarity alone does not mean that consumers are filling shopping carts with more sustainable products.

In the World of Sustainability, there is a widening chasm between what consumers say they want and what they actually buy. On the one hand, consumers say they want to be sustainable and they want companies to behave sustainably. On the other hand, when companies do take action, consumers don’t always give them the credit they might expect. There are mechanisms underlying why consumers don’t always prioritize sustainability in their purchase behavior.

Our “Sustainability: When Personal Aspiration and Behavior Diverge” research uncovered the fact that how consumers think about product categories is more relevant to understanding the gap in purchase behaviors than how they think about companies. Why the category level?

Even though consumers want to be sustainable, sustainability takes a backseat to the other concerns consumers have in their personal lives. Even for those consumers more involved in the world of sustainability, it is often too complicated for them to weigh up every dimension of responsibility for every portion of the product cycle for every product they buy. While consumers want to make sustainable purchases, they also want the decision-making process to be less complex.

As such, consumers use shortcuts to help them prioritize which dimensions are the most important and which they buy. How they prioritize depends on three interrelated components:

• Knowledge. What they know about most (i.e., what issues are most salient in the media and in their discussions with their friends).

• Practicality. What also helps them practically (i.e., most clearly ladders up to the personal benefit zone by offering quality, great experience, health, safety, efficacy, convenience).

• Faith. The issues they have connection with, most compellingly with their values, and have most faith in can make a difference.

Category-level sustainability analyses enable us to determine what elements of personal, social, environmental and economic benefits consumers apply to different types of products. These vary substantially within food and beverage, personal care, pet products, foodservice and retail sectors.

For brands to succeed in bridging the gap between green attitudes and buying behavior, they will need to address barriers voiced by consumers centered on Knowledge, Practicality and Faith:


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• Knowledge. Speak to concepts consumers already know and understand rather than trying to educate them about new and complex ideas.

• Practicality. Make it easy for consumers to prioritize sustainability by maximizing the personal benefits of sustainable products.

• Faith. Show consumers that they’re really making a difference.

For the greatest impact, communicate sustainability in a way that is relevant and moving for your category and products.

Laurie Demeritt is CEO of The Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm based in Bellevue, Wash. She can be reached at [email protected].

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