Some politicians are waging a war on sustainability. New research shows U.S. consumers of all persuasions, from Gen Zers to boomers, are going in the opposite direction

At a time when political factions are decrying corporate efforts to operate more sustainably by protecting the environment, it may come as a surprise to learn that most Americans, regardless of party, income level, geographic location, age, or gender, want to purchase sustainable products.

Our research at NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) has found that not only are sustainability-marketed products growing twice as fast as conventionally marketed products, but they are also selling at a premium of 28%, on average. We also found that certain sustainability messages will drive significant increases in purchase intent, across political parties, age, income level, and location.

The messaging that persuades American consumers

Partnering with Edelman and nine iconic brands, CSB tested messages across sectors on core product attributes as well as a host of environmental sustainability messages. We invited consumers to choose amongst the messages, highlighting which ones were more likely to drive purchase intent.

We found notably high ratings for messages about “my health, my wealth, my world.” Consumers from all demographics responded most positively to claims that directly referenced personal health benefits for themselves and their families, individual monetary savings, and impacts on their immediate world and communities around them. Other high-performing claims included animal welfare, supporting local farmers, and 100% sustainable sourcing.

Those claims worked best when aligned with core product attribute claims. Nobody wants to buy a laundry detergent that doesn’t clean well, even if it is sustainable. Consumers want to know first that the brand delivers the benefits for the category they are purchasing (whether it cleans clothes well, tastes good, moisturizes skin well, etc.).

While we found that an articulation of the core attribute alone would be appealing to 44% of the potential target audience, adding two additional sustainability claims tied to that core attribute drives increased appeal by 24 and 33 percentage points to an average of 74% across the nine brands. The most compelling claims could be “good for your skin and the planet,” or “tastes great because we partner with local farmers for 100% sustainable sourcing.”

In sum, consumers of all walks of life and political persuasions are interested in products that improve their quality of life from a sustainability perspective, especially when connected to themselves, their family, and their community.

Americans are voting with their wallets

This is what consumers say they will purchase, not what they’re actually purchasing. Is there a “green gap,” with consumers saying they plan to buy green products, but not actually doing it?

We tackled this question through a partnership with Circana (formerly IRI) to review the bar code data they have collected on the purchasing of consumer packaged goods across all stores going back to 2013. We looked at 250,000 products for on-pack claims in 36 of 40 consumer package goods (CPG) categories.

We found that while sustainability-marketed products only comprise 17.3% of total sales, they are responsible for 30% of the growth in the sector. In fact, in 2021, one of every two new CPG products sold had one or more sustainability attributes. Some categories such as dairy, yogurt, and toilet paper have more than 60% of products sold with sustainable attributes. Sustainable market share continues to grow while conventional products are in deficit growth. For those categories that are widely available, we see that all demographics buy them, even at a premium, though people with lower education and lower incomes tend to buy fewer sustainable products (due to cost and availability). 

The growth in purchasing of sustainability-marketed products has been strong through the pandemic and the recent inflationary period. And since we issued our first report in 2019, those categories have continued to grow sustainable market share. We broke down the 36 categories into low share (underdeveloped at less than 5% sustainable share of their respective category), medium share (5 to 15 % sustainable share), and highly developed (more than 20% share). In 2018, there were 14 of the 36 categories in the low bucket, now there are nine. Most moved to the medium grouping–and one category moved to the high designation in just 4 years. In the original study, only nine categories were considered highly developed), now it’s 13–a third of all the categories we studied.

Younger consumers tend to over-index on sustainable purchasing, as do those with higher incomes and education, as well as those in urban areas. Generation X and boomers, as well as middle-income, suburban, and rural cohorts, also tend to purchase sustainable products. It is primarily the retirees, people with only a high-school education, and low-income consumers who tend to under-index, primarily due to availability and price. As we see these products become more available and the premiums decrease, we are likely to see more purchasing from those groups as well.

Most Americans would like to purchase sustainable products that are healthier, drive savings (such as lower energy costs), protect their children’s future, improve animal welfare, support local farmers, and are 100% sustainably sourced. Consumers don’t see it as a political position–and our research finds that Americans are carrying through with that purchase intent.

Tensie Whelan is the founding director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

Randi Kronthal-Sacco is a senior scholar at NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

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