Whose fault is the say-do gap, really?
It seems that the initial boom in sustainable goods is over. In the UK, sales of vegan food alternatives are flatlining, and many ranges are being withdrawn: Innocent Drinks has recently discontinued its dairy-free smoothies after disappointing sales, and sausage maker Heck has reduced its range of meat-free products from 10 to just two. The cost-of-living crisis is reported as driving this decline; the annual rate of UK food and non-alcoholic beverage prices inflation increased to 19.1% in the 12 months to March 2023 – its fastest pace for over 40 years. In this climate, when sustainable choices typically cost more than the alternatives, it is unsurprising that consumers are turning away. But rather than ask ourselves why consumers aren’t buying, we should be asking why sustainable choices have to cost more.
Why do sustainable choices have to cost more?
Good question. The one-word answer is governance. What I mean by this is that, at a macro level, green consumer items have to play by the same rules as non-green items because most organisations are run to satisfy shareholders. And when your primary (or only) business stakeholders are the shareholders, sustainable items are subject to the same financial rules and expectations about profitability and margins as the rest of the business portfolio.
But, because sustainable items cost more to develop, they can’t live up to those expectations without higher pricing. Brands invest in these things because they know they should rather than out of a true commitment to the environment beyond thoughts of profit; when they fail, we all blame the consumers because it’s easier than looking at systemic problems around corporate governance.
Is it just about cost?
Another good question. No. There are other issues. For example, many sustainable or plant-based food items fall into the UPF category – ultra-processed foods – which we are now starting to understand can be problematic for health. And looking beyond food categories, other sustainable behaviours that fall foul of the say-do gap, such as recycling, are failing for other more complex reasons too. Even when packaging says it is recyclable, it can be too complicated or difficult for consumers to do so. Brands are failing to create the conditions around sustainable products that enable consumers to meet their needs for a sustainable future. Blaming consumers for the say-do gap is like Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, blaming poverty on people’s choices rather than on their environment and circumstances.
Do consumers really want to be ‘green’?
Good question… but not quite the right question. What we should really be asking is, “What do consumers want for their future, their children’s future and the future of the planet?” Asking if people want to recycle or buy sustainable goods is the same sort of marketing myopia that led Theodore Levitt to say, “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” Research shows that when you talk to people about the future and listen to their hopes and dreams, what people desire is a connection to each other and nature.
“Our latest ‘Citizens’ Visions of 2030’ research conducted over 18 months… has uncovered the insight that everyday people dream of more connection in their lives. They have a desire for a deeper connection to self, to others and to nature in the future. These lives are more compatible with halving emissions by 2030 and are the opposite of the ‘Good Life’ the advertising industry currently sells, which centres on wealth, status and having more.” The Good Life 2030.
By holding sustainable products to different standards than other goods, but still expecting them to provide shareholder value, we aren’t giving them a fair chance. And by blaming consumers for the say-do gap, we aren’t giving them a fair chance either. It’s time to start working towards real change and, in doing so, listen to consumers and trust what they are telling us.