Telling consumers a product is better for the planet has a questionable impact on sales, but can still help both brands and consumers meet their sustainability goals, says Katie Thomas, Lead at the Kearney Consumer Institute (KCI).

Virtually every consumer product seeks to appeal to a buyer’s desire for sustainability as the fight against climate change becomes ubiquitous. Whether it’s clothing, white goods, or even toothbrushes, brands are working hard to ensure their products have minimal impact possible on the planet.

To help guide consumers towards sustainable choices, energy branding, claims, and labels have become increasingly prominent as a means to communicate a product’s green credentials. But choosing where to put information, including which information to put on a product’s packaging, and how many facts and figures to include, remains a delicate balancing act for firms. It’s vital that brands select the most informative metrics and remain mindful that sustainability is still a secondary purchasing factor for many consumers.

Sparking action

There’s no denying that shoppers care more about the environment than ever before, but how that concern translates into purchasing decisions is something completely different. The idea that consumers are “demanding” sustainability, and would therefore consider paying more for it, has evolved into “expecting” sustainability as table stakes.

A study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) of roughly 19,000 consumers across eight different countries revealed that while 80% of consumers are concerned about sustainability, only 1-7% say they are paying a premium for sustainable products and services.1

Indeed, a food-based survey in the UK revealed that 80% of consumers prioritised taste over sustainability as the most important aspect, with ‘table stakes’ such as price, healthiness, ingredients, and the brand also ranking above a food product’s green credentials. But this doesn’t mean sustainability isn’t a strong selling point.

Multiple drivers

If it’s a priority, over half of consumers will go looking for environmental information proactively.

This suggests that sustainability or energy labels should not be viewed as the start and end of green branding strategies, but rather as a part of a wider appeal to consumers; there to be read by those weighing up the sustainability of a product casually with other factors, perhaps.

It’s worth noting that consumers are bombarded with different sustainable statistics (carbon footprint, recyclability, energy or water usage), leading to more confusion, rather than clarity. This is further complicated by the fact that data from Kearney’s Consumer Institute shows 99% of consumers are already taking action to become more sustainable, and most believe they know how to shop sustainably across categories.

Price, availability, and quality remain vital components of a consumer’s choice when it comes to purchasing any item. Consumers want sustainability too, but brands must consider whether sustainability branding is a true differentiator, or whether consumers simply expect the brands they buy from to be taking steps to reduce their impact on the planet anyway.

And as with all information aimed at influencing a consumer’s decision, it has to mean something to the person making the purchase.

Context is key

Sustainability branding and energy labelling convey crucial information to consumers, but they don’t have to be static; how they appear could evolve and improve in the future.

Footwear maker Allbirds collaborated with Adidas in 2021 to unveil what they claimed was the world’s lowest-carbon trainer, the Futurecraft Footprint. The trainers emit 2.4kg of CO2 per pair, far less than the 12.5kg of a typical pair.

But as Allbirds’ sustainability manager Hana Kajimura told Vogue prior to the launch, the carbon footprint is “not that useful if Allbirds is the only one doing it – customers need something to compare our numbers to”.2

This links to a vital, broader theme that brands must consider when sticking on sustainability or energy labels: Context is key, as well as a group effort. Sustainability claims should be tailored to appeal to consumers in their local markets, addressing the predominant concerns of shoppers in specific countries or regions.

A product’s sustainability perks must also be contextualised with its other benefits. A product that focuses too heavily on its sustainability might erroneously lead consumers to believe other factors that are important to them – such as taste, health, or quality – have been relegated. That is often not the case and demonstrates why sustainability claims should be made alongside other factors that compel a purchase, not ahead of these other factors.

Sustainability and energy labelling are important and here to stay, but how, where, and why it is implemented must be carefully considered by brands to ensure they achieve the desired impact.


Three ways to help consumers make more sustainable choices, World Economic Forum]

Could food-style labels on our clothes help us make greener choices?, Vogue