There are three parts to consumer fatigue in regards to sustainability: fatigue itself, consumer disconnects and combating fatigue. Fatigue can lead to consumers becoming less tolerant to a topic, less interested, or even abandonment if fatigue is coupled with distrust or fear. In the case of sustainability, consumers are choosing other priorities such as cost over sustainability itself. Consumer fatigue has been captured repeatedly in survey work by many researchers such as those below:
- NPR-Thomson Reuters - 58 percent of adults prefer to eat organic foods, 54 percent said it was too expensive;
- The Integer Group, M/A/R/C - 75 percent will not pay more for eco-friendly products;
- Thomson Reuters - 56 percent of women chose green over convenience, 52 percent of men favored convenience over green;
- NBC Universal - 32 percent of consumers say green products not worth paying more for;
- Mintel - About 93 percent of consumers claim local, organic and sustainable ingredients do not influence them to frequent a specific restaurant;
- RetailMeNot / Ipsos - 46 percent prefer products with an environmental claim, but 60 percent said they won't pay more for them;
- IFIC - 67 percent said they were not willing to pay more for sustainably produced food.
Consumer disconnects can only be remedied through education, however it must be targeted precisely. To market products using terms unfamiliar or confusing to consumers is to market in a foreign language. The research below represent good examples of current consumer disconnects:
- IFIC - 45 percent unfamiliar with the idea of sustainability in food production;
- Mintel - 84 percent of consumers said they regularly buy sustainable products, but were unaware of the meanings of fair trade, reduced carbon emissions and solar-wind energy use;
- Hartman - 69 percent of consumers are familiar with the term sustainable, but only 21 percent can identify a sustainable product and 12 percent can name specific companies;
- Mintel - Sustainable food, drink lovers attracted by perceived superior quality
- Cornell University - Foods that carry organic labels are perceived as more nutritious and better tasting than conventional foods
- CA State University Northridge, University of Grenoble - Consumers mistake fair-trade foods for lower-calorie.
Notice that the first three are disconnects around corporate behavior and the last three are health information disconnects. This is a troubled pattern as it shows disconnects in multiple directions making the re-education more complicated. Alliances between corporations and consumer interest groups, with expertise in sustainability, would be welcomed as consumers would be more likely to listen to and believe the consumer interest groups but also lend credibility to corporations in the alliance.
Consumers are more open to education during a recovery as they are ruled less by fear and more open to new information. During a recession consumers are ruled more by the day to day issues surrounding their circumstance and details essential to their survival. During a recovery consumers have less fear in their life and so become more exploratory and interested in the details around non-essential topics.
Research has already shown that with just a small amount of education, consumers' stance on a subject can be altered as seen with GMO research. GMO currently is being attacked here in the U.S., however the attacks are led by adversarial groups, not consumers. Consumers have little understanding of GMO yet are ruled by fear due to the media attention on the forces against GMO. Ironically, GMO is a sustainability solution, yet is not being positioned as such. Here are two studies which employed consumer education prior to asking the consumers their opinion of GMO products. Both studies pointed out to consumers that GMO can be used to boost nutritional attributes of crops. Here are their results:
- Iowa State University - consumers are willing to pay 25 percent more for the GMO products with more healthful attributes.
- IFIC - 24 percent of adults surveyed said they want more information on food labels. Consumers were more likely to buy GMO products with more healthful attributes.
Here are the subtle shifts in communication a company can make to better align with consumers.
Instead of: Generic "green" label statements
Try: Explain why the product has a green claim on label – educate the consumer
Instead of: Marketing how a sustainability practice helps your company
Try: Marketing how a sustainability practice helps the consumer
Instead of: Promoting how your company's sustainability efforts help the environment/community
Try: Empower consumers – give them the control over bettering their environment / community by using your products
In the end, watch for the following to take shape:
- FTC better define sustainability for marketing purposes
- Sustainability claims continue to be targeted by adversaries
- Packaging technology is dictated by safety, sustainability issues
- GMO will play a more critical part to aid crop production, health benefits
- GMO benefits' research becomes critical to supporting its survival, thwarting adversaries
- Sustainability label/symbol programs headed for national standardization
- Consumer disconnects, confusion become focus for behavioral research
And, as always, here are some suggestions:
- Know the birth and lifecycle of a trend prior to deciding to enter so you can foretell how to navigate it
- Neither love nor hate a trend – emotions will fog the trend's true pattern and you may be blindsided when it shifts
- Spend more time researching a trend's personality and trajectory than worrying about what your competitors are doing – after all, they may be idiots
Suzy Badaracco is a toxicologist, chef, and registered dietitian. She holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Criminalistics, an Associates degree in Culinary Arts, and a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition.