When two consultancies asked UK adults what company they thought was leading the way on sustainability, the most frequent choice was striking: Amazon.
While the ecommerce giant has launched green initiatives in recent years — including a pledge to reach “net zero” carbon emissions in its own operations by 2040 and a move to buy 100,000 electric vehicles — it has also faced criticism from campaigners who argue its rapid delivery model generates too much greenhouse gas.
Greenpeace last year accused Amazon of taking “two steps back for every step forward”, while Angela Terry, founder of the consumer sustainability website One Home, said Amazon helped push up retail emissions by pioneering fast deliveries.
“One of the worst consumer trends [for emissions] has been next-day delivery,” she said.
Those survey findings, from sustainability consultancy Brodie and policy group Public First — based on information from more than 2,000 respondents — therefore highlight the difficulties consumers have in assessing green moves by companies.
They also show the challenges for lower-profile businesses in cutting through rivals’ green claims to reach consumers. Some 7 per cent of respondents named Amazon as a sustainability leader — making it the most mentioned single company — but another 25 per cent said they did not know of any, while 15 per cent gave no answer.
Daisy Powell-Chandler, a director at Public First, says the choice of Amazon — and others named by respondents, such as Apple and Tesco — shows that “it’s far easier to get consumers to listen if they are already bought into you as a brand”.
However, she says many people feel unsure of the environmental language used by companies and governments. For example, when asked if they would feel confident explaining the term “net zero” to a stranger, only 35 per cent said they felt very or moderately confident, 49 per cent did not feel confident, while another 16 per cent had never heard the term.
What is net zero?
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines net zero as being achieved by cutting emissions to as close to zero as possible over a specified period and compensating for any remaining emissions with projects that remove emissions from the atmosphere.
But this uncertainty does not indicate a lack of awareness of climate change, says Powell-Chandler. “It was heartening to understand how few people actually dismiss this stuff out of hand,” she says. “Everyone thinks businesses should behave better.”
And consumer attitudes are important not just to businesses, but to the climate itself. Researchers believe behaviour changes may contribute more than a fifth of the emissions cuts required to reach net zero by 2050.
Sue Garrard, an environmental consultant and former head of sustainable business at Unilever, says populations across Europe, including the UK, are increasingly worried about the climate, while “the say-do gap is closing quite rapidly” — meaning consumers are more prepared to act on their concerns. “Between 80 and 95 per cent of consumers across big European markets definitely want to feel they are part of the solution, not part of the problem,” she says.
Still, levels of awareness vary widely. Germans stand out as well educated and heavily influenced by green concerns, Garrard says. “The German consumer is concerned about both environmental and ethical issues to the extent that you see very big differences in the success of brands that are not seen to have either actively positive environmental or ethical track records,” she notes.
Fast fashion fares less well in Germany than elsewhere, for example, while some bottled water makers direct their supplies of recycled plastic specifically to Germany, to help win over consumers there.
Scandinavian countries also have strong awareness, Garrard says, and in the UK — historically a “laggard” — awareness is rising fast. “It tends to be very issue driven,” she explains. “When David Attenborough made his programme about plastics [the 2017-18 documentary series Blue Planet II], that made a big impact.”
Garrard says one example of successful brand communication is Evian’s advertising based on its recycled packaging, which uses the phrase: “Bottle made from bottles.”
“That’s a good example of where the consumer doesn’t have to work at understanding why an individual product is better . . . it does what it says on the tin,” she says.
What should I buy?
However, Terry set up her website three years ago with the view that consumers need a trusted independent source of advice and resources.
“People do what they think is best, which is fussing about recycling and water refills, but those are some of the lowest-impact steps to take . . . they need information that is independent and impartial,” she argues. Her website lists the “top five climate actions” for consumers, including switching to electric cars, installing solar panels, taking holidays locally, eating less meat, and insulating one’s home.
This information is likely to find some traction with the group of consumers that Brodie and Public First dubbed “corporate optimists”. When dividing up their survey respondents by attitude, they found that this group — making up 18 per cent of the total — thinks companies are changing for the better, and would be willing to spend more on green goods.
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For example, these consumers — who are more likely to be female than male and more likely to be in professional jobs — are typically prepared to spend $28.48 extra for a phone with half the typical carbon footprint.
A second group, dubbed “big power sceptics”, is less trusting of companies but would spend even more — $36.80 — to switch to a low-emissions phone. Its members are also more likely than others to avoid flights and to buy second-hand.
Another group, the “commercial realists”, making up 22 per cent and believing individual actions make little difference, would pay a much lower premium for a green phone: only $1.14. Such attitude groupings cut across age and income boundaries, says Powell-Chandler.
But Garrard says most consumers have one thing in common: a reluctance to make big compromises to buy green. “What won’t work in any mass market of any sort is where the consumer has to trade off product functionality . . . with doing the right thing,” she says.
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