Sustainable consumption is still one of the big mysteries in the sustainability world. While it is obvious that we can’t shift to a sustainable economy without greater participation by consumers in this transition, we still don’t really know how to get them there.
Many efforts have been made to figure this riddle out. The latest effort is a collaboration between three mega-forces in the world of sustainability research – BBMG, GlobeScan and SustainAbility - which together created a study that might finally help companies move the needle when it comes to sustainable consumption.
Released last week, the Regeneration Consumer Study is an online survey of consumer attitudes, motivations and behaviors around sustainable consumption among 6,224 respondents in six major international markets (Brazil, China, Germany, India, United Kingdom and United States). There is a lot of interesting data in it on consumers in these countries, including consumer segmentation on the sustainability spectrum. One of the segments, “aspirational consumers”, might offer the key to sustainable consumption.
As the study reveals, this large consumer segment, which includes trendsetters in emerging markets like China and India, is seeking both sustainability and consumption. This contrast might sound weird but it actually has the potential to significantly promote sustainable consumption and help make it more mainstream in the markets that really matter (i.e. China and India).
Here are seven things you need to know about the aspirationals and what companies should do about them.
1. So who are the aspirationals anyway?
This is the largest consumer segment (37 percent on average), with clear dominance in the two largest developing markets – India (42 percent) and China (53 percent). In developed countries, it is about a third of the population.
The signature behavior of this group is shopping – 70 percent of them agreed with the statement “shopping for new things makes me happy.” Style is important to them and so is the quality of products they buy – 82 percent said they would buy more sustainable products if they performed comparable to and/or better than their usual brand. At the same time, they are also among the most likely to believe that we need to “consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations” (73 percent).
From a demographic perspective, this group is almost evenly divided between male and female, 26 percent of its members are Millennials, 14 percent are retirees, mostly urban and also likely to have a child.
2. Why this group is so important?
Aspirationals, the authors explain, are “the most important segment in which to enable advances in sustainable consumption, not only because of their overall size (and presence in developing markets) but also because they honestly want to purchase with a purpose.”
They are “the persuadable middle,” the authors continue, “as they are materialistically-oriented while, at the same time, aspiring to be sustainable in their purchases and beliefs.” In other words, this group’s currently materialistic behavior makes it part of the problem, but given its positive attitudes towards sustainability, it can become part of the solution.
3. Should we believe what aspirationals say about themselves?
I believe this is one of the most important questions here as the potential of this group stems from its attitudes, so how do we know if they actually mean what they say?
We have heard this notion time and again, and reality shows people don’t really mean what they say about preferring sustainable products or consuming less in general.
A less skeptic observer would point out that these attitudes coincide with the demographics of the group as well as findings from other studies showing a relatively more progressive approach towards sustainability in developing countries. Last, but not least, the gap between the group’s attitudes and behavior might be the result of companies failing to meet the aspirationals’ needs, not lack of authenticity among the responders.
4. What are the main barriers companies may have in addressing this group?
The main barriers to sustainable purchasing in the report (these are for all groups and I assume they also apply to the aspirationals) are: performance (75 percent), cost (70 percent), reliability/trust (64 percent), lack of understanding of what makes products environmentally or socially responsible (63 percent) and inability to see the environmental or social benefits of the products right away (63 percent).
5. How can companies overcome these obstacles?
Obviously the “easiest” way to do it would be to provide consumers with sustainable products that don’t cost more and have similar, if not better, quality. Companies will need to be more innovative (BBMG’s Disrupt and Delight report provides some excellent examples on how to do it), utilize crowdsourcing tools and be more open-minded to new design concepts and business models.
Yet, even companies that think this is too difficult or even impractical, at least in the short term, don’t need to give up on the aspirationals. The other top barriers are about communication and engagement, and as the authors claimed in an article in the Guardian, “there is a clear opportunity for improved marketing here and blending values with value is key,” from delivering total value to using social networks more effectively.
6. Why should companies be interested in making the aspirationals more sustainable and less materialistic?
This is a tough question. It’s not clear yet to what extent companies will be willing to encourage consumers to shift to what collaborative design strategist Ann Thorpe described as a low product context. This is based on “a new language that would rely largely on inner growth and improved social contexts as a means to well being, rather than material goods and individual purchases.” In other words, buy less, share and DIY more.
7. Will companies do it?
Aspirational companies probably do. The rest will probably wait to see how it works for them and so will we.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.