The data you’re about to see might make you uncomfortable. It might even contradict data you’ve seen elsewhere, but we’re confident in what it’s telling us, and it’s a global story.

Cracks in the consumer sustainability narrative can no longer be ignored, and they’re about to become even deeper and wider.

People are predictable, individuals aren't

Ask an individual if they care about the environment, and the chances are they’ll confirm. Given the weight of scientific evidence in favor of climate change, the evident loss of biodiversity, natural disasters, and public outrage, it would be very controversial to say otherwise.

Ask millions of individuals on an ongoing basis if they care about the environment, and you can start to read between the lines and see the bigger patterns. As is often the case with our data, the truth isn’t just found in what our respondents tell us - it’s also in how those responses change over time or between groups.

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Forget what you know

In the vast majority of countries we track, fewer people now tell us helping the environment is important to them compared to pre-pandemic. In every country we track, the number of people who say they expect brands to be eco-friendly has also shrunk in the last few years.

A quick Google search can dig up countless recent studies or news headlines which might contradict that. But the data you’re looking at tells the same story in many completely different countries, at different points in time, and the gradual trend lines are unmistakable.

This is one of many declining sustainability-related trend lines all pointing in the same direction; including interest in environmental issues, self-reported recycling, willingness to spend more on eco-friendly products, and environmental optimism. All have diminished in at least 20 or more countries.

Sustainability is slipping through the cracks



A bigger echo chamber

On many fronts, we’re calling into question a lot of what we “know” about the fight against climate change. The market research industry has often failed to represent the problem in the cold light of day, the much-hyped ESG criteria has come under intense fire from many directions for its supposed contradictions, and the idea that consumer demands and choices set the agenda for sustainability is increasingly controversial.

People aren’t suddenly less outraged by the degradation of our planet. It’s more a case of prioritization, and mental bandwidth.

Consumer choices are often framed as one of the most important drivers of change, but those same actions are far from free - they have many constraints bearing down on them.

Don't just blame the economy

The cost of living crisis is front-of-mind for driving this apparent environmental apathy. In some countries, there’s a statistically significant relationship between changes in how people feel about their country’s economy or their personal finances, and changes in the degree to which helping the environment is a priority.

In fewer countries, we see a relationship between financial outlook and how many people expect brands to be eco-friendly. Many of these markets have witnessed some of the biggest drops in economic confidence.

Inflation is plaguing many economies and outgoings are taking up larger shares of household incomes. That’s why sustainability in the year ahead will increasingly look like a luxury.

But it would be a mistake to stop at the economy. This trend stretches back over 2 years, during which time many countries saw record-high accumulations of cash savings.

The link between economic confidence and sustainability attitudes

We define economic confidence as future expectations of a respondent's country's economy, or their personal finances. The graph below shows that changes in economic confidence can help predict changes in sustainability attitudes.

Tip: The fact France is at the top means the relationship between economic confidence and the desire to help the environment is strongest in this country



The price of pent‑up demand

Post-pandemic pent-up demand has been extremely stubborn in the face of the cost of living crisis. In virtually every country we track, the number of people saying they would rather sacrifice other spending to buy a product sooner continually grew between Q2 2020-Q2 2022.

At the same time, expectations of brands to be eco-friendly dropped, and consumers’ willingness to pay more for eco-friendly products also fell. So this “sacrifice” was in some instances likely to have been sustainable purchasing.

This relationship between wayward spending and sustainability attitudes seems to be most prominent in Asian countries, including China, India, and Indonesia. And based on the number of countries, it appears to have had a stronger long-term bearing on consumer sustainability than financial anxiety.

The link between pent-up demand and sustainability attitudes

The below graph shows that changes in spendthrift attitudes can help predict changes in how willing people are to spend more on eco-friendly products.

Tip: The fact Italy is at the top means the relationship between Buy Now Pay Later uptake and willingness to spend more for eco-friendly products is strongest in this country



Sustainability in the US

ReportAre American consumers price-conscious or eco-conscious? What's getting culled in the cost of living crisis?

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For a handful of markets, including the US, uptake of Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) services appear to have an inverse relationship with willingness to pay more for eco-friendly products. Correlation does not, however, mean causation. This is much more likely a reflection of the spending mindset than the spending mechanism.

Doom­scroll­ing and deglobaliza­tion

The link between dissociation and sustainability attitudes

This shows that attitudinal changes towards global events can help predict changes in the importance placed on helping the environment

Tip: The fact Morocco is at the top means the relationship between interest in current events, and the desire to help the environment, is strongest in this country



Interest in news was at its highest during COVID-19 in most of our tracked countries. Since then, news agendas have been inundated with new coronavirus strains, war, climate disasters, superpower tensions, an energy crisis, and economic crises. But rather than maintain peoples’ interest, they appear to have lost it.

Interest in news, politics, social issues and current events has declined in over 90% of our tracked countries since 2020. In even more countries, we’ve seen a growing detachment from the global community, with fewer people saying they’re interested in what’s going on in the world.

Sustainability is a global issue. In an attention economy, the sad reality is it must compete for mental bandwidth when many are actively switching off from current affairs and global society. In over half of our markets the data suggests shifts in news interest or global awareness can help predict changes in whether consumers prioritize helping the environment.

Sustainable B2C advancements will be few and far between if they are driven by winning this battle for attention. The year ahead will further expose how climate change prevention is on shaky ground as a consumer-led movement.

Rewrite industry incentives

We would love to point to growing consumer demand to justify the need for brand-led eco-initiatives. But the world is more complicated, and consumer incentives are far more fickle.

People are struggling to find the means and headspace to live and demand a more sustainable lifestyle. This has never been more apparent, right as we sit on the precipice of what many believe will be a year of recessions, food security risks, and further geopolitical tensions.

The lesson is simple, familiar, but no less profound: consumer sentiment can no longer be the north star for industry action.

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