Irish consumers are dealing with a lot at the moment. From increased energy prices and worries about the upcoming winter, to rising inflation, and talk of another recession, there’s a lot to consider. Yet, despite all of these concerns, climate change, its impact on the environment and the world, and how individuals can make positive changes — that really make a difference — remains top of mind for Irish consumers.
According to Accenture’s new report The Sustainable Consumer: Bridging the Gap Between Aspiration and Action, 80 per cent of people want to live more sustainably. But while the intent is there, living sustainably isn’t easy, with 75 per cent saying that’s hard to do – and are calling on businesses to do more to help.
Irish consumers are taking action and changing their behaviours to support living more sustainably. The report found that 40 per cent have reduced the number of new items they buy and one in eight is choosing to eat more locally sourced products in an effort to help the environment. Customers are also looking to support companies who share that goal, with 70 per cent of Irish people more likely to purchase from a brand if it described itself as eco-friendly. However, 75 per cent find that living sustainably is hard to do, and 92 per cent feel that businesses should do more to help consumers be more eco-friendly.
Some of the ways Irish people expect businesses to be more sustainable include making a conscious effort to reduce waste (52 per cent), reducing their carbon footprint (28 per cent) and committing to ethical work practices (20 per cent).
Karen O’Regan, managing director and head of strategy at Accenture in Ireland, cites a clear conflict when it comes to living sustainably and what businesses are doing to help facilitate this. “There are a lot of positives from Irish consumers, who are making changes and want to get it right," she says. “There is a tension emerging between companies and their customers, with a lot of confusion and scepticism around firms’ green credentials.
"As businesses return to operating at pre-pandemic norms, we see a renewed and sharper emphasis on organisational sustainability objectives and deliverables. Ultimately, the general public is demanding businesses do more to help them be eco-friendly and those that do will enjoy the benefits.”
While there are more reasons to implement sustainability measures than the bottom line, it would appear it pays to be sustainable, as 40 per cent of people have stopped purchasing from a brand they felt wasn’t eco-friendly. Irish consumers are wise to lip service rather than real action, with 65 per cent of respondents questioning whether the sustainability information brands provide is legitimate and suspecting ‘greenwashing’.
Greenwashing is generally considered to be when companies convey a false impression or provide misleading information about how environmentally sound their products or services are. According to Investopedia, “Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company's products are environmentally friendly.”
Common greenwashing tactics include claiming products are made from recycled materials or have energy-saving benefits when they may not, or when companies make unsubstantiated claims about the environmental or sustainable targets they’ve set.
O’Regan says the research highlights a real opportunity for businesses. Customers understand the need to make changes and 80 per cent want to live more sustainably. But at the same time, they are finding it challenging and expect businesses to do more for them.
“On the other side, we have organisations that are almost waiting for consumer demand to come around to their products and services to help them do more in relation to sustainability. But we can’t wait, we don’t have the time for mass consumer adoption around sustainable products. It’s the role of business to step up and think about how they can help consumers more to address those concerns.”
First off, she says, "organisations have to help reduce the burdens that prevent people from becoming more sustainable. According to our research, the two main burdens are cost and lack of data/information. Starting with cost, the research shows that we have a considerable number of Irish consumers who say they find it expensive to live sustainably, find sustainable products more costly, and sometimes they find the sustainable alternatives less effective. Organisations need to think about how they can reduce that burden.”
According to O’Regan, businesses also need to help consumers with where they get information about sustainability and the products and services they’re consuming, whether it’s on labels, in-store or online, and how can they trust the information they are being provided with.
“Consumers don’t totally trust the information they’re receiving," she says. "Irish consumers are not 100 per cent convinced that the information they are seeing around sustainable products and services are truly reflective of how that organisation operates in practices and therefore suspect greenwashing.”
There’s a lack of information for consumers, O Regan says. Even the savvy consumer who goes looking for information can find it hard to locate or understand. “Organisations have a role to play in making that easier for consumers. Consumers are not scientists — they’re not equipped to understand technical labels or complex approaches around carbon emissions and reductions.”
Many companies are still relatively early in their sustainability journey, she adds, particularly when it comes to having really deep qualitative and quantitative data regarding the environmental and broader sustainability indicators for their products and services. Being able to unlock this data and share it with consumer in a way that consumers can understand will be key to backing up organisations' sustainability commitments.
“Many organisations are just at the start of capturing that information right across the end-to-end value chain for products, from the raw materials at the beginning, to the consumption at the end. They need to engage with a lot of partners and suppliers in order to capture the data and translate it, so it can be shared in an authentic way with consumers; allowing consumers to consume and trust it.”
In fact, another piece of research from Accenture found that only a quarter (26%) of executives agree they have clear, reliable data for sustainability measurement.
Beyond the role that corporations play in improving sustainability, O’Regan says there is plenty that individuals can do to make an impact. She describes how she and her family have made small changes over time, to ensure they play their part to bring about positive change. “When we looked at our carbon footprint as a family, what surprised us most was the footprint around travel. This included everything from flights to local everyday travel."
She says that the family began to think about making conscious choices more broadly on their lifestyle and in particular travel. “Knowing your own footprint and the footprint of your family is a really good place to start in helping you to make informed positive choices.”