Sustainability? Consumers just don't get it, study finds

It's bandied about so often it's hard to remember a time when it wasn't central to the world we live in. But do consumers truly understand the term 'sustainability'?

That was the question posed by Washington State-based research organisation Hartman Group when it ran a survey for a new report, 'Sustainability: The Rise of Consumer Responsibility.'

The findings make thought-provoking reading. Hartman found that the word was "seldom used in consumer circles" and that many individuals were unsure what it meant, with only 56 per cent familiar with it. Meanwhile, 71 per cent of consumers said they didn't know, or were uncertain, which companies supported sustainable values, while 75 per cent said they didn't know or were uncertain which products were sustainable.

So are companies wasting their time pursuing their sustainability goals? Not necessarily. Although consumers do not understand the word itself, they do understand the values it represents, said the report.

"Regardless of whether or not consumers are acquainted with 'sustainability', we find that they often point to words and phrases that reference the greater good.

"Recurring terms such as 'responsibility' and 'doing the right thing' emerged from interviews as ways described by consumers to achieve the greater good and link economic, social and environmental issues important to them."

Further, when the report examined attitudes to consumer goods markets, it discovered food and beverage were "central to consumer perceptions of sustainability."

"The direct connection made by consumers between food and the Earth makes the environmental zone of sustainability top of mind for consumers inside the World of Sustainability," the report said.

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