The new consumer dilemma – lean or green?

Consumers’ desire to be green is conflicting with their need to save money. How can marketers help them overcome this dilemma?

Macro trends in today’s world have the power to pull and push where people spend their money. As a result, consumer attitudes are constantly evolving. Over the last few years, for example, we’ve watched sustainability become a priority, with eco products, services and experiences taking centre stage. And more recently, the rising cost of living has had a profound effect on how shoppers navigate their budgets.

But how do these trends play out on the ground? Do they conflict with one another or complement each other? And is it a catch-all sentiment? New research by leading audience insights company, GWI, throws up some interesting demographic differences in attitudes. Around three in 10 gen Z/millennials, for instance, are likely to be conscious of clothing prices, compared to just under a fifth of boomers, at 19%. In contrast, boomers (66%) are ahead of gen Z/millennials (61%) when it comes to concerns about the cost of their food shop.

“Lifestyles and different forms of purchasing responsibility are having an impact here,” says Jason Mander, chief research officer at GWI. “Income plays its part too – higher income groups tend to be more worried about things like transport and vacations, whereas lower income groups are more focused on day-to-day or essential items like clothing, food and housing.”

With prices rising rapidly, the most important factor in consumers’ behaviour when it comes to sustainability is the cost - if it’s seen as green and it doesn’t have a noticeable financial impact on us, then we’re more likely to buy it or do it. For instance, across all age groups, a whopping 85% of us are recycling and nearly two thirds (61%) are cutting our use of plastic packaging, while 44% are donating household items. However, GWI research also reveals that just a fifth of us are changing to green energy providers or buying sustainable clothing, both of which are perceived as involving additional costs.

“Almost everyone in the UK feels they’re recycling or reducing their plastic usage, but far fewer of us are doing things that might cost us more, such as buying sustainable clothing or organic food,” says Mander. “This accords with what we often see in our research, where we find the greatest enthusiasm for shopping and living sustainably in ways that are easy to do, or which bring financial benefit, for instance, using energy-efficient appliances.”

This conflict between doing what is good for the environment and what is good for our outgoings is even more significant today as consumers worry about price hikes and feel the effects of inflation. It’s worth noting that according to GWI, nearly nine out of 10 people (88%) feel that the cost of living has increased either “somewhat” or “greatly” compared with six months ago.

“What we call ‘lean versus green’ refers to the conflict between consumers’ general desire to help the environment and their perceived or real inability to follow through on that,” explains Mander. “If you look at our data, the environment is an important concern for the majority of people. Some actively list it as more of an interest than others do but hardly anyone says that they don’t want to do their best for sustainability. However, this doesn’t always connect with consumers’ actions.”

This is especially true when they’re making purchasing decisions. “You’re standing in the supermarket, looking at a more expensive green-friendly product versus a cheaper, not quite so eco-friendly product,” he says. “Which one do you actually put in your basket? That’s the dilemma. How do you follow through on your aspirational behaviour to be green? You become a contradictory consumer – you want to do one thing, but you actually find yourself doing the other.”

How can marketers help their brands by helping consumers to manage the conflict between shopping sustainably and economically so that they can make choices that fit with their ethics – and their budgets?

“Brands have a role to play by making it easier for people to feel good about themselves because they feel that they’re following through on their idealised intentions when it comes to sustainability,” says Mander. “What we find very consistently is that consumers expect brands, governments and the rest of society to make it easier for them to live sustainably. This means that to appeal to customers and reassure them, brands really have to emphasise their green credentials and demonstrate all the steps that they’re taking to improve their supply chains and to make their packaging more sustainable.”

This action by marketers can make a consumer feel good about choosing their brand. “It can act as an important differentiator,” he explains. “When you’re faced with two similar product offerings, then the one with the obvious green credentials can sway you and make you feel that you’re doing the right thing.”

Consumers are increasingly aware of greenwashing, warns Mander. Only 12% of UK consumers say that a brand making charitable donations is important to them. That should act as a warning to any brand thinking that donations and feel-good activities elsewhere will offset the need to take meaningful action within their supply chain and production process.

Brands that are seen to be making a claim that isn’t strictly true - or that is headline-grabbing but isn’t relevant to their business - will suffer, especially as consumers often use social media to express their views. Transparency and honesty are essential here.

However, when a brand offers good value for money and its green credentials are clearly relevant, visible and have real depth and integrity, the result, according to Mander, can be good for them, good for the consumer – and good for the planet.

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