30 Jan 2018
By Wright Communications
New Zealand businesses that plan to wait for regulation before taking sustainability seriously are in for a rude awakening. As governments debate how to enforce sustainable corporate behaviour, consumers are getting in ahead of them and Kiwi shoppers are no exception, according to new research.
The Colmar Brunton Better Futures 2017 report, released this week, shows more and more Kiwis are making sustainability part of their purchasing decisions.
The survey of 1000 people nationwide found that 30% of New Zealanders rate themselves "highly committed" to a sustainable lifestyle, up significantly from 25% in the previous year's survey.
Low income surprise
Interestingly, the increase was driven largely by low income earners and over-60s. This shows sustainability is not just for young idealists, or wealthy people with the time and money to focus on the issue.
Sustainability is now a mainstream concern for consumers, along with the usual factors such as price, quality and brand.
If two products are otherwise identical, a company's reputation with regard to sustainability may decide the outcome.
In fact, roughly six out of seven Kiwis (83%) surveyed as part of Better Futures say they would stop buying a company's products if they heard that company had acted unethically or irresponsibly.
Price still king
If you produce your goods in an ethical and sustainable way, you may even be able to charge more. However, the evidence from the report is mixed.
Almost seven out of 10 New Zealanders surveyed (69%) said they are willing to pay a little bit extra to get the best organic, sustainable and ethically-produced products on the market.
Unfortunately, New Zealand's low incomes limit the choices available for many of us at the checkout.
Although only three out of 10 Kiwis say value for money is the most important reason to buy a product, eight out of 10 buy products because of the price, even among those committed to a sustainable lifestyle.
Few memorable brands
Kiwis are not known for blowing their own trumpets, but our brands can certainly do a better job of making consumers aware of their sustainability credentials.
Despite growing interest in the topic, only three out of 10 Kiwis can name a business leading in sustainability.
This score has improved from recent years. but it still suggests that companies are missing sales opportunities.
The secret might need to be unlocked in marketing departments and external agency briefs, with an explicit focus on sustainability in both advertising and public relations.
A handful of brands were spontaneously named, by those surveyed, as sustainability leaders including: ecostore, Meridian, Air New Zealand, Toyota, Fair Trade and newcomer Tesla.
Employees care too
Businesses that fail to respond to consumer issues by developing credible and clear sustainability plans, risk not only losing customers but also being unprepared for the inevitable future government regulation in this area.
They may also lose out in arguably the most important aspect of building a successful modern business: staff.
The Better Futures report shows Kiwis are showing their commitment to sustainability in their career choices as well as their shopping choices.
Around three in four respondents (73%) say it is important to work for a company that is socially and environmentally responsible, while 64% say they would rather work for a company with strong values, even if they pay less.
With "employer brands" becoming more and more important in attracting top talent, these results should make companies pause and reconsider their commitment in this area.
Confusion still reigns
From a corporate perspective, perhaps the most important finding from Better Futures is that companies still need to simplify their communication around sustainability.
A whopping 72% of respondents said the way businesses talk about their social and environmental commitments is confusing and hard to understand.
The good news is this was down from 75% in the previous survey and 81% in 2015, but this number is still far too high.
Consumers want to see businesses and brands tackling the tough issues - social and environmental. They will be loyal to businesses and brands that are taking on the issues they care about.
Doing all these things is only half the battle. If you fail to communicate them properly you risk squandering a lot of hard work.
Water and climate to the fore
'Sustainability' is a broad term encompassing many different concepts and actions.
The latest Better Futures report shows that despite social issues topping the list of Kiwis' biggest concerns, environmental issues - particularly water, plastic waste and climate action - are emerging as hot topics.
Climate action is among the fastest rising issues coming in at number four. In fact, two thirds of New Zealanders agree that climate change is the biggest problem the world is facing today.
Eight out of ten New Zealanders said that clean water and sanitation is an important issue, with 91% believing all Kiwis are responsible for improving the quality of our waterways.
Life below water was the issue where concern increased the most in 2017, with 67% now saying it is an important issue for New Zealand, up 7% on the previous year.
In addition, cleaning up of New Zealand waterways featured in the top 10 concerns for New Zealanders for the first time, with almost 60% stating it was an issue they were concerned about.
Aiming for sustainable goals
The Better Futures survey also quizzed Kiwis on their awareness of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a mixture of social, economic and environmental goals.
Although only 28% of respondents to the Better Futures survey knew about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, most Kiwis seem to be trying to live according to those principles.
Common actions include recycling (97%), being energy efficient (95%), buying local (93%) and not using plastic shopping bags (83%).
These offer some useful starting points for businesses looking to become more sustainable: before you start on grandiose goals, do the little things well.
It is also important to make sure you have a solid reporting framework, to measure your progress and show what areas you have to work on.
In summary, keep looking at what your company can do to address the key areas of consumer concern...it may just improve your sales and reputation.
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