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Talking to sustainable shoppers

Last week, Colmar Brunton and the Sustainable Business Council released the Better Futures report, surveying 1009 New Zealanders about their top social and environmental concerns. As SBC members, we were able to attend the launch online under Alert Level Three.

Even though consumers aren’t the main audience of the New Zealand Energy Certificate System, I was watching closely because this report is important context for our system users and has some key pointers for consumer engagement in the year ahead.

Companies buy New Zealand Energy Certificates (NZ-ECs) for different reasons: to reduce emissions in their corporate reporting, to fulfil global commitments such as RE100, or to signal their commitment to taking climate action to their customers. But ultimately it is the demand from consumers and investors that drives that action.

In the constrained environment of Covid, what is important to consumers? Right now, the cost of living is top priority. But this doesn’t mean that sustainability concerns have gone away. In fact, as Sarah Bolger, Head of Colmar Brunton explained, the drop in concern about climate change may mean that New Zealanders have seen government and business start to take action, and so they can afford not to worry about it so much. If this is the case, then it is even more important that we are indeed taking meaningful action.

On the other hand, some participants commented that climate change feels like a far-off problem. But climate change is by no means yesterday’s concern, nor can we punt it down the track. Mainstreaming climate issues needs to continue in line with how we as New Zealanders want to live. And, as Mike Burrell, Executive Director of SBC has said, 2021 needs to be the year where we move from advocacy to action.

One of the key points Sarah Bolger made is that brands have to work hard to stay relevant to conscious consumers. The research shows that more New Zealanders are committed to taking action in their personal lives, with increases in behaviours around reusing, reducing, repairing and recycling. More than 50% of New Zealanders are “active” or “engaged” on sustainability, and I predict this trend will be reflected in increased expectations of businesses.

In previous years, we have seen an increase in a sustainable mindset across different income groups and ethnicities, pointing to a mainstreaming of sustainability concerns across many different groups in society. And targeting people with a sustainable mindset is worth it. In the United Kingdom, this market grew 20% between 2019 and 2020.

New Zealand companies are taking action on climate change, with over 100 participating in the Climate Leaders Coalition. But does this translate into recognition for individual brands?

To come back to the cost of living: New Zealanders have always been price-conscious, and even more so now. Sustainable products are often perceived as expensive, and can feel like an unnecessary luxury when people are feeling under pressure.

To turn engagement into action, consumers need information. The good news is that the survey shows consumers find how businesses talk about their social and environmental commitment clearer than in previous years. However, consumers still don’t have enough information to help them fully understand the impacts of their actions and translate that into snap decisions in the grocery aisle - or given the massive upswing in online retail last year, in front of their screens.

Point of purchase labelling has a crucial role to play, the clearer the better, and I predict we will see the rise of a uniform carbon label for goods and services, to make it easier to compare products side by side on the shelves, or to choose the most eco-friendly hairdresser, for example. New Zealanders do not want to pay a premium for sustainability - they may expect it to be baked-in, at least in mid-range products.

So what can businesses do? We have been talking about the need for action long enough, it’s well past time to start doing. And as the Climate Change Commission has outlined, change will be needed at all levels of society.

Businesses such as SBC and CLC members are engaged in worthwhile initiatives to bring about system change, but this can seem fairly abstract to consumers. The challenge is to translate that high-level action into tangible progress at a consumer level.

As long as their corporate actions are consistent, companies can benefit from making it easier for their customers to take action on sustainability in their homes and workplaces. Examples that spring to mind are Westpac partnering with the CoGo app, Ecostore’s bottle recall programme, The Warehouse introducing an eco-friendly category to their online shopping, and Unilever introducing carbon footprint labels for all of their products. Using these opportunities to tell your story about corporate action as well can help consumers join the dots and feel more like we’re all in this together.

And collaborating on joint initiatives around labelling, using recognised auditing standards, or working to strengthen uptake of existing eco-labels will help give consumers more confidence when they come to make that crucial decision in the aisles or online.

Covid has increased everyone’s background levels of anxiety and stress, but New Zealanders still want to do the right thing for the environment and for society. If we can make those choices easier, they will thank us for it.

Catherine Jeffcoat, Communications

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