Consumers do care about environmental sustainability, but you have to make it easy for them

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Manchester cotton workers lauding their: “Sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country”.1 Quite the tribute from a remarkable leader, but why?

Amidst the raging American Civil War cotton shipments from the southern states to England had been stopped by the Atlantic blockade, leading to mass unemployment and even starvation amongst cotton workers in Manchester. Set against this backdrop, the Manchester workers came out in support of Lincoln and the Union armies’ fight to abolish slavery, despite the untold hardship it would bring on themselves and their families.

An extreme but pertinent example. Many argue that the climate crisis requires major changes to the way we live our lives; far smaller sacrifices than those made by the Manchester workers of course, but difficult changes nonetheless. The argument goes that our free market capitalist system of mass consumption and endless growth is incompatible with an effective solution to the climate crisis.2

This may be true, albeit it’s a contested position, with others pointing to early signals of the decoupling of economic growth and environmental harm. 3

Most businesses aren’t debating the merits of either argument, but rather focusing on the needs of their customers, who seem hardwired to consume. Whether we like it or not, the genie of free-spending mass consumerism is out the bottle and it’s very hard to put back. That cheap flight, those new shoes, and that tasty steak are just too dammed tempting for all but the most puritanical environmentalist. In China, Alibaba’s Singles Day sales on 11th November trounced all records this year, shipping $25bn worth of goods and 777m parcels in a single day, hardly the lead indicator of a cooling appetite for consumption in the world’s most populous nation.4

This is where the story becomes more complex for business though, because while consumers may find it hard to change their consumption patterns, they still want to be a part of the solution to climate change.

Yale research shows 70% of Americans think global warming is happening; 58% believe this is mostly human caused; and, most importantly, 74% are worried about it.5 This concern is translating into a growing body of environmentally-aware consumers more mindful of what and how much they consume, driven in particular by Millenials.6

For years this stated preference amongst consumers to do the right thing has seen most turning a blind eye when they come to the check-out, leaving environmentally-friendly products a niche market segment. Taking the food industry, research shows that the environmental sustainability of food tops the list of concerns for Millennials, but this has little impact on actual consumption patterns for meat, one of the most environmentally harmful products.7

Indicators point to changes in consumer behaviour though, even when it hits them in the pocket. A recent opinion poll in Norway found for the first time that a majority of people backed the notion of leaving oil in the ground, thus sacrificing any associated economic boom.8 Sceptics may decry this as a little convenient and too late for a country already made rich through decades of oil drilling, but money speaks for itself and the population is saying ‘no’.

More broadly, recent developments show politicians and governments responding to a strengthening of public resolve towards the issue of climate change. Long-term climate goals were re-affirmed and further details nutted out at the UN climate change meeting in Bonn this month.9 More than rhetoric, slowly but surely firm policy positions are emerging, including the slew of pledges around banning petrol cars,10 and the more recent UK and Canadian-led initiative to stop coal consumption by 2030 which has received major global backing.11

Taken together, this leaves businesses with a consumer base increasingly mobilised around the issue of climate change, but unwilling, or even unable, to change their consumption patterns. Those businesses seeking to do the right thing for the planet and profit in the process must effectively walk this tightrope.

This slightly awkward position is best encapsulated in the strategic response of pioneering environmentally-friendly outdoors brand Patagonia. On the one hand, it pushes the frontiers of product innovation to minimise the environmental impact of everything it sells, but nonetheless continues to try to out-sell competition. On the other hand, their famous “Don’t buy this jacket” full-page advertisement in the New York Times on Black Friday 2011 called on consumers to reduce, repair, reuse, recycle and reimagine before making a purchase, addressing head-on the hard fact that consumption patterns must change.12 

While Patagonia serves a relatively niche market segment, leading organisations that are orders of magnitude larger are also responding. They typically focus on making it as easy as possible for consumers to do the right thing with more sustainable products delivered at the same price point.

Perhaps the clearest examples sit at the high-church for consumerism: the fast fashion industry.  Here sustainable practices are slowly hitting the mainstream, led by global retailer H&M with its ‘Conscious Line’, which strives to provide a more environmentally friendly product without breaking the bank.13 Backed-up with an in-store recycling scheme that rewards customers that drop-off old clothes with discounted shopping, the retailer is trying to make doing the right thing convenient. Hardly a unique case, competition is hotting up across the industry to help consumers do the right thing.14

IKEA also moved early when in 2012 it announced a goal to be 100% powered by renewables by 2020.15 Backed up with multi-billion dollar investments in wind and solar it is on course to meet this goal, which combines with further initiatives stretching across its vast supply chain to clean up everything it sells, including a goal to become ‘Forest Positive’ by using only sustainable or recycled wood by 2020.16

Neither H&M nor IKEA are sustainablilty saints, and I haven’t conducted my own audit of their environmental efforts to understand the overall impact of their various green initiatives, albeit many environmentalists remain sceptical.17

The point for now is that many consumers feel a deep-rooted need to be more environmentally sustainable, but that this is then hard to reconcile with their current lifestyles. Leading organisations are investing heavily to address this need by trying to make it more convenient for consumers to do the right thing, benefitting their bottom line in the process.

While a shift away from environmentally unsustainable business models like fast fashion may be a far more impactful environmental fix, it’s not one that’s forthcoming. Hopefully ever more enlightened consumer consumption habits will evolve in the coming years, but in the meanwhile organisations moving towards goals like being ‘100% renewable’ is a positive step.

Of course, consumer attitudes and beliefs about environmental sustainability are extraordinarily rich and diverse, and organisational responses are far broader than just focussing on customer convenience. There are myriad innovations around product, business model and brand, amongst others, which I’ll explore in future posts. I will also explore how these innovations and approaches are cascading across industries.


As an addendum to the above, I have so far implied that businesses may continue in their current model but with more sustainable practices. This places me on one side of a heated debate amongst environmentalists, sometimes termed a ‘corporate environmentalist’. The other side to this debate holds that: “Corporate environmentalism is chiefly geared towards being a little less unsustainable amid growing destruction: it is this fantasy that enables the corporate environmental movement to overlook or, better still, obstruct more radical sustainable practices”.18

Based on what I have read so far, I see it as a little less black and white. I wholeheartedly agree attempts by companies to greenwash their products and services are detrimental, particularly while those companies lobby to prevent meaningful changes to protect our environment. And, I am personally encouraged by many grassroots movements devoted to protecting the planet, often in direct opposition to these companies. 

At the same time many people are highly educated about the state of the environment and the challenges we face but are unlikely to make all the lifestyle changes to become more sustainable. We all find it hard to turn-down that cheap flight, those new shoes, and that tasty steak.

As such, within the current political and economic system, I see a two-speed approach to protecting the planet as the most pragmatic and realistic option available. On one hand, grassroots movements to encourage the introduction of useful regulation and structural change. Running parallel, it seems attempts by businesses to shift to more sustainable practices are a positive, pragmatic and profitable step towards protecting our planet.

  1. BBC, Abe Lincoln and the ‘sublime heroism’ of British workers, 17 January 2013
  2. Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, Climate change, capitalism, and corporations: processes of creative self-destruction, 2015
  3. Tim Flannery: Atmosphere of hope: searching for solutions to the climate crisis, 2015
  4. FT, Alibaba’s Singles day registers $25bn haul, 11 November 2017
  5. Yale program on climate change, Climate change in the American mind, May 2017
  6. Nielsen, Green generation: Millenials say sustainability is a shopping priority, 5 November 2015
  7. Quartz, Millennials are deluding themselves about eating less meat, 1 September 2016
  8. The Economist, New green advocates, 4th November 2017
  9. FT, France and Germany call for greater effort to curb climate change, 15 November 2017
  10. The Guardian, China to ban production of petrol and diesel cars ‘in the near future’, 11 September 2017
  11. FT, Coal’s days are numbered as countries pledge to end use, 16 November 2017
  15. The Guardian, Can you power a business on 100% renewable energy? Ikea wants to try, 8 April 2016
  16. IKEA,
  17. Huffington Post, Before Buying More Clothes At H&M, Read This, 15 September 2015
  18. Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, Climate change, capitalism, and corporations: processes of creative self-destruction, 2015

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *