Today, ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable’ is a label plastered all over adverts for clothes, food, cosmetics, appliances, and other products as organisations claim that their sourcing of materials, or manufacturing or distribution process, are environmentally friendly. It is vital that products are sustainably sourced and manufactured for our transition to a regenerative model of consumption, is needed to replace the current model of consumption in which goods are produced and disposed of at high cost to the environment.
There is no doubt that the market for sustainable goods is here and growing, following findings from The Economic Intelligence Unit that there has been a 71% rise in online searches for sustainable goods globally over the past five years. This changing consumer behaviour drives the demand for businesses to change their ways to combat climate change, which is especially pertinent given the recent news that July 2023 is now recorded as the hottest month on record.
However, far from offering the simple ‘green’ solution that it often advertises, ‘sustainable’ consumerism is limited by its availability, accessibility, and affordability. This constrains the reach of sustainable consumerism and leaves a gap between consumers’ green ambitions and their actual purchasing behaviour. In a recent Bloomberg article, the Kearney Consumer Institute terms this divide between consumer intentions and what they can access or afford the ‘Consumer Aspiration Gap’. To help challenge the view that the consumer aspiration gap will persist inadvertently for years to come, there are various suggestions for closing it.
The consumer aspiration gap arises partially out of consumers acting out of habit and doing what is convenient. To counter this, Katie Thomas, Lead of Kearney Consumer Institute, suggests that businesses should carefully craft strategies that remove ‘bad’ or unsustainable choices to enable mainstream consumers – often ‘paralysed’ by endless consumer decisions – more often choose sustainable options. Contending the potential business anxieties that may arise from this approach, Angela Hultberg, Kearney’s Global Sustainability Director states that ‘it’s also a matter of assigning a cost to inaction. What’s the true overall value of sustainability, and what’s the cost of not changing your approach?’. As with Thomas and Hultberg, I too hope that as sustainable options become more widespread, companies will shoulder the economic burden to keep up with competition. Meanwhile however, sustainable options often remain expensive.
Indeed, one of the most significant limitations of sustainable consumerism is its affordability. Greater prices constrain many consumers today, particularly in the context of current inflationary pressures and the cost-of-living crisis. This has the unfortunate consequence of making sustainable consumerism only affordable to more privileged economic cohorts and restricted for lower income individuals and households. Sustainable options must become more affordable. Though ambitious, various factors can help accelerate this process. Governments can provide financial incentives for companies to meet sustainability targets which would could help them to price sustainably; the establishment of incentives and rewards for sustainable shopping (such as discounts and loyalty programs to motivate consumers themselves); and the provision of targeted support to smaller businesses focusing on sustainability to help them compete with larger competitors.
Greater availability and affordability are however not worthwhile without an associated increase in consumer awareness. Limited awareness is another factor constraining sustainable consumerism, as without education on the impact of consumer choices and any consequent impact on sustainable shopping practices, the mainstream consumer remains unlikely to change their habits. Awareness can stem from formal routes such as clear product labelling and certification and government schemes to encourage sustainable production and consumption, both of which help consumers identify these options. More informally, people could be recommending platforms and services to each other, generally encouraging others to enable consumers to ‘act with their wallet’, choosing sustainable options apps for shopping such as Depop and Vinted which promote the sale of second-hand clothes, as well as services such as By Rotation and Hurr for clothes rentals. Platforms such as the IMPAKTER Index are useful tools for assessing the sustainability of different sites and so can legitimise such sustainability claims.
While it may not be possible to completely eliminate the gap, strategies to ‘remove bad choices’, make ‘good choices’ more affordable, increase awareness and education on sustainable consumerism, and encourage others to ‘act with their wallets’ are helpful for narrowing the divide between consumers’ intentions and behaviour. Though these strategies are ambitious, having aspirational conversations on these matters is a necessary step towards bridging the Consumer Aspiration gap itself. If we believe that we can work to close the gap and work towards this goal, it becomes more achievable.
Alba MacGillivray is an associate of CSPP2021 and recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh