The Hartman Group: How are consumers talking about social responsibility and sustainability?

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages / rez-art
©GettyImages / rez-art

Related tags Sustainability

When it comes to the health of the planet and social wellbeing of the population, consumers feel they have less of an impact as an individual and that large companies and government organizations have a bigger role to play, according to new research from The Hartman Group,

The Hartman Group​ conducted a large sample quantitative survey (n=1697) in combination with primary qualitative research of US households. When conducting its market research, The Hartman Group asked about sustainability in a broader context: surveying consumers about their social and environmental concerns.

"The word 'sustainability' can feel a bit ostracizing; it’s not a word that rolls easily off their tongue,"​ said The Hartman Group CEO Laurie Demeritt.  

'The food and beverage category is by far the gateway into sustainability for most consumers'

"What we’ve seen over time, is a huge shift in consumer sentiment and importantly, consumer behavior. We’ve moved from this idea of mere aspiration to behavioral change, and that’s happened along a continuum,"​ said Demeritt. 

"That’s happened first with product categories they see as being connected to health. The food and beverage category is by far the gateway into sustainability for most consumers. They see connection between those sustainable products and their own personal health."

The Hartman Group began studying the sustainable CPG market in the late 1980s when consumers were talking about the 'green marketplace'. While many consumers were interested in 'green' products, many were lost in terms of identifying or trusting those products, noted Demeritt. 

"There was a very significant gap between this desire that consumers had to participate in the marketplace, but they weren’t actually putting their money where their mouth is. In many cases, when they did [seek those sustainable products out] they weren't considered as efficacious, maybe not as effective, or didn’t taste as good,"​ said Demeritt.

'The health of the planet, the health of the environment is now a very key purchase motivator'

Today, consumers are much more savvy about what is truly a sustainable, socially responsible product, becoming a defining concern and growing space in the CPG market. 

According to IRI sales data, sustainable products accounted for 17% of the dollar share of the CPG market (across multiple categories: F&B, household items, personal care, etc.) in 2018 and 50% dollar share growth between 2013-2018. 

Reasons for purchasing sustainable products have also shifted from 51% of consumers purchasing such products 'because they are better for me/my family' in 2017, to 51% purchasing sustainable products 'because they are better for the earth/environment'. 

"It’s not that they still don’t associate sustainable products with the health of their family, but it’s now the fact that the earth and the environment has become more top of mind as they’ve become more knowledgeable about these products, and that’s truly a huge shift they’ve seen in consumer sentiment,"​ Demeritt said. 

Demeritt added that in the past social issues have been top of mind for many consumers when it came to sustainability, but that consumers concerns within the broader sustainability category are also beginning to shift. 

"What we’ve seen is this sudden shift to these environmental benefits moving up the ranks because it’s been more of an issue and in the limelight over the last year or two,"​ she said. "The health of the planet, the health of the environment is now a very key purchase motivator, and maybe even outweighs some of those personal benefits once people are into the category."

Who is most responsible for making the world more sustainable?

While individual responsibility for improving the social and environmental health of the planet has been a strong call-to-action for many consumers over the past ten years, assumed responsibility for these causes has started to shift, according to The Hartman Group.

"As consumers become more knowledgeable about this category, they come to this point where they plateau, meaning they’re not quite sure what else they can do as an individual. Now, they’re starting to look to companies and governments to be the ones to make change,"​ explained Demeritt. 

The Hartman Group also found that consumers across generations used to believe that their purchase decisions was the best way to impact society, and today that's less of the case. More consumers today believe their voting decisions can have a greater impact on society.

'Consumers still value sustainability as a quality cue'

Despite more consumers wanting to see government organizations and large corporations step up to the plate when it comes to sustainability and social responsibility, consumers do respond to certain certifications and seals on products. For instance, The Hartman Group noted a 5% increase in 2019 in consumers' motivation and interest in purchasing Fair Trade products, a 9% increase in Rainforest Alliance Certified, and 8% increase in Certified Carbon Neutral products.

"Consumers still value sustainability as a quality cue, but the momentum is building behind the greater good as a purchase motivator," ​Demeritt said. 

"Consumers believe themselves to be on a journey. They’re not looking for the companies they buy from to be perfect either. What they’re looking for are metrics, measurements, milestones, criteria by which they can judge by which can they can judge how these companies are doing. So rather than hide what you’re doing – since you’re not perfect yet – make them part of the journey, make them part of the plan," ​added Demeritt. 

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