Sustainability is not yet a household term, says Hartman Group

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sustainability Us

The term ‘sustainability’ is unfamiliar to almost half of US consumers, according to new research from The Hartman Group, and many of those who do know what it means don’t know what companies or products are sustainable.

The Washington state-based market researcher conducted its latest survey on sustainability towards the end of 2008, just as the impact of the financial crisis was starting to be felt.

They found that 56 per cent of consumers asked were familiar with the term ‘sustainability’, only slightly up from 54 per cent in 2007. Moreover 71 per cent said they didn’t know which companies support sustainable values; and 75 per cent didn’t know or were uncertain about which products are sustainable.

The report, entitled Sustainability: The Rise of Consumer Responsibility, covers several consumer industries, including personal care, household cleaners and home décor.

But the food and beverage category was found to be “central to consumer perceptions of sustainability”​, since they make a direct connection is made between food and the earth.

The report is intended to show consumers’ familiarity with sustainability as a term and a way of life – and to look at the complex web of interactions in economic, social, corporate and environmental responsibility that is reflected in consumption patterns.

Forward-thinking terms

Although sustainability itself is an “unwieldy concept”,​ the report does highlight a number of topics that are connected to it, such as ‘local’, ‘fair trade’, ‘cruelty free’ and ‘responsibility’.

However it identifies the notion of “doing the right thing for the common good” ​as a strong guiding principle – and one that can help establish hope, even in hard times.

“Importantly, we see consumers seeking out those products, services and retail outlets that they feel represent forward-thinking, higher domain experiences within which sustainability has profound connections at personal, social and global levels”.

Downturn living

The research was not primarily intended to consider consumer acceptance of sustainability during the financial downturn, but it so happened to coincide with the collapse of Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, and the US bailout package.

The researchers say that while consumers do have to make some trade-offs in responsible, sustainable behaviours, they do so in the categories that are seen as less essential.

Food, as well as personal care and household cleaners, were seen to “remain consistently purchased as consumers see them to be most important to their quality of life”.

What is more, consumers seek out a silver lining to economic troubles by drawing on interconnected topics such as saving energy, and investing in “a better world”.

More information on the report is available from

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