Do Consumer Favor Sustainable Brands for Their Products and Services Needs? NYU Stern School Research Dives Deep into the Data For Answers

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

Many people in consumer marketing are wondering about consumer preferences for “sustainable” products! In our weekly newsletter the G&A Institute team offers media and experts’ shared perspectives on various issues and matters related to corporate sustainability, responsibility; and, sustainable, responsible and impact investing.

In recent months the content shared frequently has focused on trends in the consumer market — to help answer the question of whether or not consumers reacting to brand-facing companies positioning themselves as sustainability leaders.

Is this type of brand marketing a successful strategy?  Worth the effort? 

So the important question in all of this “wondering” is: Are consumers now favoring sustainable or green (or pick your term of definition) for their products & services at retail? 

In our ongoing monitoring of news, feature and research results — such as for the fashion and footwear industries, the auto industry, food & beverages, and certain other categories — the results tell us brand leaders are now often introducing sustainable products alongside their usual cash cows. We included several items for you in this week’s newsletter along these lines. This was our top story:

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tensie Whelan, professor at New York University Stern School of Business, and leader of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, and Randi Kronthal-Sacco, director of Corporate Outreach for the Center (and formerly with Johnson & Johnson) describe the results of their recent in-depth research project. 

This research centered on trying to answer the question — do U.S. consumers actually purchase sustainably marketed products?  (Spoiler alert: yes – you must read the HBR article to find out more.) 

Whelan and Kronthal-Sacco used volumes of data sets from bar scan codes at retail for food, drug, dollar, and mass merchandisers, looking at 36 categories and 71,000+ SKUs, accounting for 40% of consumer products goods (CPG) sales over a 5-year period.

So, what did they find to be the largest share of sustainability-marketed products? 

Almost $1-in-$5 purchases at retail are for toilet tissue, facial tissue (think: forest products); milk, yogurt (the yield of countless dairy farmers); coffee (lots of attention on the global coffee-growing belt circling the Earth, and worker conditions therein); salty snacks (really?); and bottled juices (you’ll notice that Coke and Pepsi and other beverage marketers are advertising their shift away from sugary drinks). 

At the bottom of market share:  laundry care, floor cleaners and chocolate candy (accounting for a 5% share).

Say Tensie and Randi:  Pay attention, marketers and those all along the retail value chain, from grower field and factory floor to shelf space.  Consumers are voting with their dollars, for sustainable and against un-sustainable brands. 

Winners in the corporate sector include PepsiCo and Unilever; laggards include Kraft Heinz. (For the leader, Unilever:  think of the company’s sustainable labels like Seventh Generation, Sundial Brands and Pukka Herbs.)

And we are seeing in the many stories we bring you each week about consumers and sustainability, the future for sustainable CPG at retail is looking bright – look at the apparel industry.for examples  The agora is alive and well with many more sustainably-branded products on the shelves.  That’s the good news for sustainability professionals.

The NYU researchers used data from IRi (the research house for CGP, retail and health and beauty – information at: https://www.iriworldwide.com/en-US/Insights)

Congratulations to our colleagues Tensie Whelan and Randi Kronthal-Sacco at NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business for sharing their insights and perspectives.

This Week’s Top Story

Research: Actually, Consumers Do Buy Sustainable Products
(Thursday – June 20, 2019) Source: Harvard Business Review – NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business just completed extensive research into U.S. consumers’ actual purchasing of consumer packaged goods (CPG), using data contributed by IRI, and found that 50% of CPG growth from 2013 to… 

Is the Movement to Achieve Greater Societal Sustainability Reaching the Consumer? One Consumer Marketers’ Story…

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

The story is being well told -– a growing number institutional shareowners and their global networks of asset managers steadily embrace ESG / sustainable investing approaches.  Corporations of all sizes are adopting sustainability strategies and churning out sustainability and responsibility reports to tell the story of their sustainability journey.

Many national, state and local governments are following through on their commitments made in Paris in 2015 (the Paris Accord on climate change). NGOs galore are focused on driving sustainability into all corners of human behavior.

What about the vast global consumer market?  What’s happening at the consumer level?  The House Beautiful magazine (part of the Hearst UK Fashion & Beauty Network) brings us news from the UK about one large company’s sustainability-focused marketing efforts.

The headline:  Why 2018 is the year sustainability went mainstream. The most-watched TV show of the year was the BBC series on sustainability.  And at least one major retailer has put “sustainability at the heart of everything we do,” says its senior sustainability manager.

The firm in focus is John Lewis & Partners (manufacturers and marketers of “homeware, fashion, furniture, electricals,” mens and womens wear). The employee-owned company offers its lines of products through a vast network of retail outlets. What is the company doing?

It has introduced a duvet (quilt bed cover) made of 100% recycled polyester from plastic bottles (120 bottles = one duvet).  The product is made in an “eco-factory” running on renewable energy. The company has its own factories as well as contract manufacturers.

The S’well Geode Rose drinking water bottle sales are up year-to-year (by 37%) says the company.  Glassware made from recycled glass is offered in the company’s John Lewis Croft Collection.  As alternatives to tin foil and plastic cling film for food storage the company offers brands “Stasher” and “Bees Wrap” -– silicone kitchen storage bags.

The company works with the Re-Use Network in marketing its new sofas; when a customer buys a new sofa in the “Thomas Snuggler” line, the company arranges for the old sofa to be re-used or re-cycled in collaboration with local charities that support disadvantaged communities.

All of this and more is in its annual 2018 Retail Report.  Shoppers became more conscious about what they buy and where the products come from, explains the company.  And, this was the year we took it upon ourselves to build a more sustainable future rather than leaving it to others.

The company (“partnership”) is the largest employee-owned company in the United Kingdom. “Partners” (83,000 permanent staff) own 50 John Lewis shops across the United Kingdom, plus Waitrose supermarkets, shops at Heathrow International, online and catalogue shops, production facilities, farms, and more.

Founder John Spedan Lewis created a “constitution” to define the business and how individual “partners” are expected to behave toward stakeholders. This reminds us of the foundational document of Johnson & Johnson (“the credo”) here in the USA.

The partnership model was and is “an experiment in industrial democracy,” showing that long-term success can come from “co-ownership” with shared power and collective responsibilities.  Societal challenges like climate change and social inequality guide company thinking.

As information: https://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/csr/governance.html

Its human rights report and related information is available at: https://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/csr/source-and-sell-with-integrity/tackling-modern-slavery.html

This Week’s Top Story

Why 2018 is the year sustainability went mainstream
(Wednesday – October 24, 2018) Source: House Beautiful – This was the year we took it upon ourselves to build a more sustainable future rather than leaving it to others,’ said John Lewis & Partners in its annual Retail Report 2018. ‘We know that 73 per cent of millennials will spend…

And along the lines of sustainability-themed marketing…

Nielsen: How do sales of sustainable products stack up?
(Thursday – October 25, 2018) Source: Food Navigator – Sustainability-related claims on food products are popping up more frequently and while still just a small fraction of market, items mentioning sustainability outperformed the growth rate of total products in their respective…