As many as 85 per cent of people in the UK think businesses are too competitive and wasteful and they would like to see more collaboration and sharing of resources, according to new research that also reveals 91 per cent would prefer to see brands working together on ethical and environmental issues.
Disagreements between companies about the merits of traffic light-style labels to indicate the amount of salt, fat and sugar in foods, certification schemes like the European Union’s Ecolabel and other initiatives covering health, sustainability and responsible sourcing are likely put consumers off making sense of these matters.
Indeed, the desire to know what a brand is doing to benefit society appears to be declining among UK consumers, according to The Future Laboratory’s research that reveals only 46 per cent express a desire to know everything, almost everything or a lot about what brands are doing to be more socially responsible compared with 69 per cent who said the same six months ago.
Nearly half of UK consumers now say they only want to know a little about a company’s ethical credentials. The Future Laboratory editor Dr Antonia Ward says consumers expect brands to make things clear for them by being transparent and collaborating with communities, rather than by a “relentless push” of sustainability messages in their marketing.
“Consumers are asking brands to recognise that they have a part to play in helping to nudge their behaviour towards a better way of living.”
Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents also argue that the methods used to push brands and consumers towards better ways of living should include tax penalties or incentives. A quarter say that products should be taxed more if they harm people’s health, while 17 per cent say the same of products that harm the environment. A further 24 per cent say both types of products should fall into higher tax categories.
And those figures rise for 18- to 24-year-olds. Ward says: “Three-quarters of young adults want to tax products in one or both of those ways. Younger consumers, who are often the target market for brands, are openly saying that products should have more tax on them.”
People are less keen on the idea of consumers being taxed according to their living habits, however. One-third agree that people’s lifestyles should be reflected in their taxes, while 37 per cent are against the idea – the other 30 per cent don’t know. But again, it is the young who are more in favour of this, with 42 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 43 per cent of people aged between 25 and 34 saying people’s consumption should be taxed in this way.
Ward suggests that these age groups feel a greater sense of individual responsibility than older people do regarding the level of service they can expect from the state. The results could indicate, for example, that young people are less likely to believe that they are entitled to unlimited assistance from the state if they fail to look after their own health and local environments.
“Younger generations are less complacent about what the state can offer them,” says Ward. “This is a generation not expecting to be carried by a state pension when they are older – they are going to be working when they are in their 70s. They have a different attitude to public services and what the public sector gives them, and therefore a different attitude towards tax.”
The study indicates that new consumer attitudes are also developing towards social responsibility in the financial sector. One-fifth of the survey respondents even say that the turmoil that financial institutions are experiencing has been a good thing overall because it has made people more aware of their own finances, stopped people spending money they don’t have and has drawn attention to a broken banking system.
Age is again a factor in determining people’s reasons for saying the financial crisis has ultimately been beneficial. Those aged 45 or over are more likely to say it has been a good thing for exposing the banking system, bringing awareness to some people’s excessive lifestyles, holding banks accountable and bursting the housing bubble, while those aged below 45 are more likely to say the crisis has forced people to save more.
Ward says: “People are bombarded day by day with the economic crisis as a reality, but also as an excuse or a reason for anything from public sector cuts through to changes in our working environment. Yet one-fifth of people in the UK say that this could be a good thing, that change is good and we might need to rethink the way we’re working.”
She adds that the financial crisis has created a sense that “we’re all in this together”. In addition to inspiring more responsible attitudes towards personal finance – as UK consumers are paying off debts at record levels – it is also increasing awareness of alternative finance models that could be more socially sustainable than those of the conventional banking industry in recent decades.
Attitudes and behaviour could continue to change as economic problems persist.
“We haven’t quite got to the end of this,” says Ward. “No-one is saying it’s the end of consumerism or the end of capitalism, but there is certainly going to be a change in the way that people buy and consume products, and the way they are sold them.”
We ask marketers whether our ‘trends’ research matches their experience on the ground
We have to be careful when talking about the financial crisis being a good thing, as this research suggests. We are going through an economic recession, unemployment figures are growing and we need to be sensitive about that. But it is definitely true to say that any crisis is a point for reflection and a chance to question things that were previously set in stone and rebuild them in a better, more efficient way.
Before the crash, the financial services industry faced a huge issue with inertia and people not switching between different bank accounts and financial products. People were disengaged from it, but what the crisis has meant is that people have become more emotional about it – whether it is bankers’ bonuses, the Libor scandal or IT glitches at NatWest.
Business models will emerge in finance that allow the consumer to take part in the experience of seeing their money help businesses that employ people. That is an emotional thing, it makes people feel good and I think that’s why people will want to be more involved in their finances in the next decade.
People who use our service really enjoy it, because they are in control of who they are lending their money to and at what rate. This is where our marketing comes in – we allow people to be the bank. All the marketing about different savings accounts is commodity driven – it is all about different rates and that makes it quite challenging for marketers. Once you open up the stories on the other side of that, you can capture greater emotion.
If you think about how people invest or save their money today, they have some in cash, some in shares and some in corporate bonds. We are a new type of investment product and I think in five to 10 years it will be a significant proportion of people’s investments.
Head of marketing
People won’t buy a product just because it is ethical. They aren’t willing to compromise on performance because it is the right ethical choice to make.
I’m not sure people go as far as thinking companies should be incentivised for being ecological or acting responsibly. Legislation requires brands to act in that way anyway, so there’s an assumption that if something is on the shelf then it is probably OK.
People are confused about what’s the right ethical choice, so they put their trust in a brand rather than a green label. A lot of people don’t know what the EU Ecolabel, for example, stands for, so they don’t know to look for an accreditation of that nature.
There is a haze about what sustainability really is. Some consumers think it’s about recycled packaging, some think it’s about low energy use, while others think it’s about low food miles. What is a driver for sustainability in one category is not necessarily a driver for sustainability in another. Ecover and our recent acquisition Method both operate in a similar field but present sustainability slightly differently.
We have all sorts of different consumers and they are linked by motivation and aspiration, rather than demographics. But we index particularly well near water, which is not surprising because cleaning chemicals damage water. No two consumers are the same. You have people who are very committed and they are driven by motivations that are sometimes single issues, and sometimes more than that.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) UK
I believe that the British public is increasingly interested in the origin of many products they purchase. Food is perhaps the best example of this. Our experience indicates that consumer interest in the source of their wood and paper products is growing but it is difficult to know how actively they seek this information. Polls undertaken by GfK NOP indicate that most consumers, once aware of the meaning of the FSC logo, are likely to choose FSC certified products in future.
This highlights the need to educate the consumer in order to influence their shopping habits. However, a change in consumer behaviour is perhaps easiest where there is little else to distinguish between the products in terms of quality or price. It is unlikely that the environmental aspect will always be the deciding factor. The FSC label gives consumers the reassurance that their wood and paper products are being sourced responsibly, with positive social, environmental and economic impacts.
For a charity such as ours, the role of brand owners and retailers in promoting FSC is a key factor in our marketing work. The brand owners have the opportunity to inform consumers at the point of purchase and to supplement the on-product label with strap-lines or longer explanations about the benefits.
In the UK, FSC has focused primarily on working with manufacturers, brand owners, retailers and non-governmental organisations to maximise the reach of our message. We also target the consumers of tomorrow, with educational resources and competitions for schools and young people’s organisations. We exhibit at events such as Chelsea Flower Show and Glastonbury Music Festival to raise awareness of the issues and increase recognition of the logo.