Is making the ‘right’ choice becoming unaffordable?

Georgie Howlett
Written by Georgie Howlett

Tags: communications environment Media PR

Recent research from BCG has shown that while up to 80% of people say they are concerned about sustainability, less than 7% pay a premium for sustainable products and services. This is a significant gap between values and purchasing habits.

There is no shortage of evidence out there demonstrating that citizens are more likely to buy from brands that are acting proactively to address a social or environmental issue. People are demanding more from brands, but are unable or unwilling to pay a premium. And is that really a problem that should sit with a ‘consumer’? I don’t think so. 

Clearly, many people are unable to follow through with their values and beliefs when it comes to their purchasing and life decisions. Back in 2020, a study by Kearney found that sustainable products were 75% to 85% more expensive than conventional ones. Even if there’s been a positive shift on that since then, it’s going to pinch more given the cost of living crisis we’re experiencing. It creates cognitive dissonance among people who firmly believe in buying ethical products but are having trouble affording them.

The response to Patagonia’s founder’s latest decision to relinquish his ownership of the company to a trust to help tackle climate change has been overwhelmingly positive (obviously). It is the poster child for brand activism and the business leads with authenticity. But how many people can afford Patagonia, even second hand? Of course they offer a repair service, and their products last, but it’s a Vimes Boots conundrum in that many people are unable to afford the initial investment in the first place.

The relationship between brands and citizens is no longer purely transactional, in fact, I think the idea of ‘consumer’ comms is quickly becoming outdated – the interaction is far more complex. We’re in an era of ‘brand to citizen’ comms. So, businesses need to find creative ways to address the price point friction, mitigating the issue that ethical purchasing habits are something that only upper classes can afford – whether that’s organic food, sustainable cleaning products, ethically made shoes, or sustainable building materials. Perhaps, like Octopus Energy, put margins in the back seat for the short-term, to drive citizen uptake of behaviours and purchasing habits that are better for both people and planet. Resolving cognitive dissonance among citizens and making the ‘right’ choice affordable will ultimately mean a bigger audience, and a longer-term future for a business. Beyond price point, brands can make it easier for people to follow through with their values – better repair schemes or refill services, like Dizzie and Abel & Cole’s Zero Club. 

There are other things we can consider through communications. For example, there’s an opportunity to go beyond communicating the sustainability and/or ethical credentials, and deploy behaviour change or behavioural economics principles to help people to close that value-action gap and follow through with their beliefs. Surfacing elements that more directly speak to people’s needs right now is key; there is already evidence of people switching to lower-priced options, so talking to longer-term cost savings or health and wellbeing benefits, might resonate more in the current climate. In short, the better you know your audience, the better you can find ways to resolve this value-action gap. But these points are irrelevant if it’s simply unaffordable to make the ‘right’ decision.

It is hugely important for brands to pioneer and continue to drive for sustainable and ethical practices to be the norm, and there has been incredible headway in the last five years alone. But with Britain on the brink of a recession and people being forced to tighten their purse strings, it’s important this progress doesn’t grind to a halt. It’s equally important to make the whole thing easier, otherwise people cannot follow through, and price is a huge part of that.

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