Consumers and businesses understand ‘sustainability’ differently: Report

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Consumers, Sustainability, Corporate social responsibility

Consumer understanding of ‘sustainability’ and ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) is often very different from companies’ understanding of the terms, according to a new report from Hartman Group.

The market research organization carried out an online survey of 1982 consumers across the United States in August and found that more consumers are aware of the term ‘sustainability’ compared to three years ago, 69 percent as opposed to 54 percent in 2007. However, just 21 percent can identify a sustainable product and only 12 percent could name a specific company they thought of as ‘sustainable.’

Hartman Group president and COO Laurie Demeritt said: “We’re seeing a broad gap in the way consumers and companies think about and approach sustainability. That very few consumers today can name a sustainable company underscores the fact that so many corporate social responsibility and sustainability activities go relatively unnoticed by consumers.”

The Hartman Group’s report, “Marketing Sustainability 2010: Bridging the Gap Between Consumers and Companies”​, found that consumer understanding of the term ‘sustainable’ is changing, moving away from more literal or dictionary meanings, such as ‘ability to last over time’ and ‘self-reliance’, toward wider concepts like ‘green’, ‘responsible farming methods’, and ‘conserving natural resources’.

Demeritt said understanding consumer expectations of sustainability could provide opportunities for companies.

“Industry typically places great emphasis on energy and the environment projecting an image of being stewards of the planet,”​ she said. “But consumers are focused on more personal benefits like whether a product is healthy for their families or how a company invests in the welfare of their local community; above all consumers are looking for companies that are good citizens.”

Although consumers are interested in sustainable business practices in terms of their wider social, environmental and economic impacts, the Hartman Group asserts that most consumers engage with sustainability through the dimension of personal benefit. The primary sustainability concern for most consumers is whether a company helps their local community, the organization found.

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