Consumers judge brands on their sustainability talk and actions

Cultural changes are influencing new attitudes about consumption

Laura Tarbox
Associate Director,
Consulting Division

Across an ever-growing number of categories, from apparel and beverages to energy, brands will need to be responsible for correcting some of the problems they’ve created. Ultimately, the goal would be to leave no footprint. This circularity will not happen overnight, of course, but the brands that take on responsibility for issues related to their categories—sometimes issues not addressed by government—will increasingly be more acceptable to consumers.

The UN’s 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report laid out the extreme planetary impacts of the earth’s temperature increasing to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The catastrophes outlined in this report and the public attention it received have created a renewed sense of urgency to take action.

Consider the emergence of the Green New Deal as a policy proposal. Regardless of where one stands on its merit, the seriousness with which this proposal is being discussed underscores the rising importance of climate change to a large portion of the US voter base. This issue, in fact, is said to be one of the top campaign priorities for Millennials leading into the 2020 US elections.

In artistic and cultural spheres as varied as food and fashion, we see a preponderance of apocalyptic, dystopian themes. Vogue recently headlined a spread: “Has Warcore Replaced Normcore in Fashion?” Impossible Foods, a company dedicated to making meat substitutes from plants, leads with its “mission” to “save earth” from the destructive practice of animal agriculture.

Take, as well, the striking visual effect of Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish activist who has a disarming and innocent Heidi aesthetic. She’s marshalled teens around the world to participate in school strikes, demanding that adults and decision-makers replace apathy with action. She is just one of the “faces of innocence” mobilizing for change.

“Toxic Toby”— a campaign to restore London’s air to legal and safe levels fronted by a teddy bear—is another. This is a modern context in which the art world is showcasing exhibits that embrace humankind’s inevitable extinction. A context in which brands outside of the energy sector—such as IKEA and its new air-purifying curtains—are mobilizing innovation to find more sustainable alternatives.

Consumer choices

This reckoning is also playing out in the realm of individual choice. For example, 46 percent of US grocery consumers shopped with plant-based packaging in mind in 2018, according to a report from the supplier Evergreen Packaging based on data from EcoFocus Worldwide.

But these consumer choices aren’t purely altruistic. Increasingly, the virtuous environmental choice has become a kind of social currency. As sustainability has become a kind of aspirational lifestyle, it dovetails neatly with the increasingly nebulous sphere of wellness through a shared lexicon of holistic-ness, self-care, nurture, and progressive healthful ideals.

What once was a niche consumption behavior and limited subculture is achieving mainstream appeal.

And the bar continues to be raised. In brand communications, every environmental cue matters. Getting the cues right may be even more important for new brands that appear to speak fluently the language of wellness and sustainability. Expectations are higher for those brands. A friend was recently exasperated with direct-to-consumer company LOLA—a non-toxic tampons and pads brand “for women, by women”—for selling products with plastic applicators (they also offer cardboard and non-applicator options).

She’d chosen the brand because of its modern positioning—namely, the brand’s wellness-centric aesthetic and progressive ethos, both of which implicitly cue environmental harmony. The brand’s dealing in plastic didn’t match her expectation of it. She has now voted with her wallet and sought an alternative.

Regardless of the critique that these “new” behaviors are most often just trading off one kind of environmental harm for another, the trajectory of consumer sentiment is clear: there is an intention to continually “do better.” So this reckoning will evolve, permeating new facets of consumer culture as people gradually question each new contradiction and inefficiency. This is the enduring context for brands. In short, brands must follow the lead of consumers: the time to act is now.

Actions to Meet Consumer Expectations


Whether you work in energy or personal care, no brand exists in a vacuum. To be in business is to operate in this new context. Get ahead of consumer disparagement, regulation, and worse.


This isn’t just about spinning a positive story for people without the right behavior to back it up. Action must match well-intentioned sentiment.


We are increasingly seeing the environment serve as a starting point for brand activity. Take IKEA’s new “Gunrid” curtain that blocks out light… and purifies polluted air in people’s homes. Take cues from IKEA’s lead.


In the absence of regulation (for now), be the Dick’s Sporting Goods of environmental impact. In light of another controversial issue in the US, access to firearms, the outdoor retailer chose to stop selling guns, reaping the benefits of taking a stand in a positive way before being forced to do so. Regulate yourselves and win over consumers with your positive purpose.