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08 May. 2020 | Comments (0)

The Conference Board’s Senior Researcher for consumer research Denise Dahlhoff moderated a discussion between three experts on sustainability and consumers: Devry Boughner Vorwerk, CEO of DevryBV Sustainable Strategies and a Senior Fellow at The Conference Board’s Marketing & Communications Center; Michael Murphy, General Manager of Customer Operations at Con Edison; and Anuj Saush, Senior Sustainability Researcher (Europe) at The Conference Board.

Denise: Given that we are going through a global pandemic, do you think people will be receptive to corporate Earth Day messaging?

  • Devry: I think it depends on what the consumer is experiencing in the moment. If they have the luxury to stay at home the message could resonate a lot more with them, but for those who have moved down the economic ladder other messages may resonate more. It really depends.
  • Anuj: There is an information overload happening right now but there’s always space for positive messaging and hope.
  • Mike: There is definitely some message fatigue. I think the key is to message properly, limit messaging, and target mindfully. There may be less interest in the short term, but we have to maintain our principles, we need to share them in a limited way. Perhaps by tying them to COVID-19 and addressing short term concerns while also letting them know we will continue to think about the community and the Earth.

Denise: Are there any changed consumer behaviors or attitudes you are addressing in the longer term? How do they bode for sustainability?

  • Mike: In the utility space, the initial reaction is that consumers are not focused on us. We’ll have a significant number of customers behind on their bills who have previously always been able to pay. We must help them navigate with empathy. Part of sustainability is about supporting the community and taking actions for the greater good. We want customers to know about our green policies but in the short term we need to help them through this difficult time.
  • Anuj: It is impacting how consumers spend and make decisions. The sentiment that every company should do something about sustainability has changed because what’s front of mind is wellbeing. Almost a quarter of public transit advocates are now saying they would consider buying a car because they no longer deem using public transit safe. It could be a short-term reaction, but we don’t know how it will play out.

Denise: The main barrier to buying brands with better environmental practices in North America is extra cost. Do you think the pandemic will make people more sensitive to the price premium of sustainable products?

  • Mark: We did research prior to COVID on whether people would pay extra for green power and over 50% said they were interested or somewhat interested, but most of them were only somewhat interested. Currently they are more likely to say, “not now.”
  • Devry: Price is everything in this moment for a significant portion of the population, and especially with food and essential items – price will prevail. There has always been an issue where customers want something, but the supply chain asks who will pay for it and that’s a difficult question. There have been a lot of innovations to lower the price of sustainable products, but they shouldn’t be for just the rich or well off.
  • Anuj: Disposable income has fallen for many people; they’re going to be more conscious of spending money on all categories of products. At the same time there will always be parts of society that are willing to pay for a premium product, you will see a spectrum of consumers.

Denise: While the organizations that are most committed to sustainability will continue to lead, others will have to move the environment to more of a middle tier consideration. Despite these changes, do you think the COVID-19 experience will enhance people’s interest in the topic of sustainability?

  • Anuj: Oftentimes we have a narrow perspective on sustainability, but COVID is demonstrating that it is about more than just the environment. I think people will be more receptive toward environmental and social ways of embracing sustainability.
  • Devry: Consumers across the world are evaluating their own behaviors and consumption habits and determining what is truly essential as a direct result of COVID. We are likely going to see some of these changes in behavior result in more sustainable actions. Fair wage, equal treatment, and human rights in the workplace are everyday conversations now, and that provides an opportunity for people, companies, and governments to engage in a robust discussion.

Denise: Premium price and communications issues may keep people from buying sustainable products. Do you think this pandemic could provide an opportunity for companies to improve their communications?

  • Mike: It is a chance to figure out the right message, where to engage, and how to do that most effectively. We should look at our existing messages through the new context of COVID. Before, Con Edison was very factual and it is possible that in this circumstance we might come off as crude or not mindful of the situation our customers are in, but we don’t want to be a source of frustration. We must get ahead of that, prioritize our values, and treat our customers properly.
  • Devry: There is a difference between comms and marketing. In early 2020, I was an advisor to a brand where I was on a webcast with companies and governments involved. The premise was to recognize the work of frontline healthcare workers instead of products. It was a great example of communications and not marketing.

Denise: After the COVID-19 crisis, do you expect companies’ commitment to sustainability to increase, decrease, or stay the same?

  • Anuj: Some will see the opportunity and pursue it with their heart and soul but there will be those who evaluate and say this is not the right time in order to survive. Companies need to ask why they are pursuing sustainability in the first place and that will give them the clarity they need. You also see a lot of companies going at it alone but now is the time to tap into the power of peers, competitors, and NGOs to collaborate and catalyze a more sustainable future.

Denise: Any other closing thoughts on post-pandemic sustainability strategies?

  • Mark: The pandemic has helped us realize we have the capacity to work collectively when there is a need for urgent change. This is an opportunity to push past our previous mindset on what was attainable, stick to our principles, and keep up the momentum.
  • Devry: Those who stay on course or enhance efforts through this crisis are those that will be the winners in the long run. We know this trend is not going to go the other way. Let’s use this moment to identify possibilities and move forward.

 This blog is based on the April 22, 2020 webcast How COVID-19 Might Impact Consumers’ Attitudes about Sustainability, hosted by The Conference Board. Some responses have been edited and condensed for this format. To view the entirety of the webinar or download the presentation click here.

Don’t miss the next one! Register here to join us on May 28th for Can Supply Chain Visibility Prepare You to Manage Disruptions? Live participants can ask questions and are eligible for one CPE credit.

Can’t wait? See related research from The Conference Board:
Consumers’ Attitudes about Sustainability
Unlocking Growth through Sustainable Innovation
Five Ways a Sustainability Strategy Provides Clarity in a Time of Crisis
Rapid Response: Corporate Citizenship and Philanthropy Stepping Up to the COVID-19 Challenge

  • About the Author:Kenzie Kline

    Kenzie Kline

    Kenzie Kline is a Manager of Executive Programs in the Marketing and Communications Center at The Conference Board. Her previous position was with Ogilvy & Mather as a brand strategist working for…

    Full Bio | More from Kenzie Kline


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