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Nielsen research: Good news about the sustainable consumer, or is it?

The well-known research firm Nielsen has turned its attention to the sustainable consumer.

Their research is summmarised here. And below.

Here’s a quote from their research:

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a consumer who said he or she didn’t care about the environment, or extreme poverty around the world. But does care convert to action when it comes to buying decisions? Assuming a positive ratio between a stated willingness to pay and an actual willingness to open one’s wallet, the survey found that the answer is yes for a growing number of consumers around the world.”

I think they are making a mistake in assuming a positive ratio between a stated willingness to pay and an actual willingness to open one’s wallet, as they put it.

I went on a bit of a rant about ethical consumers and the limitations of eco labels and certification to produce more than double digit sustainable market share in any area other than wood products last week at the RSA. A link to that post is here. (and the FSC example is tenuous given some controversies about their system)

This is really one area where I would love to be wrong, but I haven’t seen any evidence that real sustainable purchasing by consumers (serious mainstreaming of ethical/sustainable consumption choices) has occurred or is happening. Perhaps social media will change that. Perhaps the internet of things will change that, somehow.

In the meantime, it’s big companies working with each other and NGOs/others that are making the change happen. It’s slow so far but I hope accelerating, although it is hard to tell.

I don’t believe consumers want to make unsustainable choices, they just want companies to look after the complexity of it all so they don’t have to choose, as doing so is just too complex (and it is).

Companies themselves find this hard enough, and it’s what they do. So what chance consumers?

I guess the other reason I am sceptical about ‘the consumer revolution’ is that I don’t believe in magic bullets.

These appeal to the delusional, and the canard of the mainstream sustainable consumer is the biggest opportunity CEOs have to be delusional as it fits their views on modern thinking (“follow your customers and what they want”).

That though, has evolved now to become “do what the consumer expects, which is quality and sustainability, at no extra cost”.

That’s much hard to swallow given that re-engineering systems to make this happen usually carries a cost in the short to medium term. That makes it at odds with many incentives, as we all know.

Anyhow, here’s the Nielsen research, which may cheer you up, even it doesn’t put extra money in your company’s coffers this week or next:

More here.


  1. I enjoyed the rant at the RSA, but what about FairTrade – surely that qualifies as a discernible example of consumers paying more for a more 'sustainable' product?

    (In advance, I know FairTrade isn't perfect, it just is what it is)

  2. Fairtrade hasn't really worked unfortunately.

    Given it was created because of low commodity prices, it now struggles for economic relevance due to sustained higher prices more or less across the board.

    Then, when you visit some FT villages, as I have, you find most people don't know what it is, and it's been suggested that in many cases it's a few dollars extra in the pockets of those at the top in communities.

    Not always true, of course, and it has helped a bit. But it doesn't scale that well in most commodities and has been less focused on other key areas such as economic development and environmental protection than other systems or corporate/NGO partnerships.

    It's hard to generalise, but my view is, if pushed, that is has served a useful purpose more in awareness raising than actual change on the ground. Now, if we want scale of sustainable change in order to address some of the (for example) demographic and technical challenges of smallholder farming, we need to go way beyond it, and fast.

  3. This is a good start as it shows that Big Data and traditional consulting/marketing analytics is getting interested in ideas of sustainability. Hopefully Nielsen will turn its attention to doing research in this arena in more effective ways in the future, such as through behavioural studies and/or neurological tests.