“The environmental movement has come a long way, spurring government policies and embedding sustainable practices into business. However, one area we have not been able to transform effectively is consumer behavior. Although the movement has grown over time, the ‘environmentally conscious shopper’ is still considered a niche consumer segment by retailers and marketers alike, which has ultimately limited the growth of sustainable consumption.” This was the prompt I was given during the start of my internship with the Environmental Defense Fund this summer.
Research from the Retail Industry Leaders Association found that: “An estimated 1 in 4 adult Americans base purchasing decisions on their values— personal, social, and environmental—and say they will spend up to 20% more on environmentally sound products”. Moreover, “2 in 5 of U.S. consumers purchased one or more products from a socially responsible company in the past six months, and 30% say they look at product labels for evidence of the company’s commitments.”
Given that demand from consumers for socially and environmentally responsible products already exists, what are the factors that limit consumers from actually acting upon their stated consumption preferences?
In this three-part blog series, I examine reasons the environmental movement may be limiting its own growth and success, and how we might learn from the successes of innovative entrepreneurs and corporate social responsibility leaders to change this. Before coming to the Erb Institute, I spent a decade working as a marketing strategist. In my experiences consulting with hundreds of retailers and consumer goods companies on their marketing and media strategies, I observed that most marketers still believe that the “sustainable shopper profile” represents a limited segment of the population: female buyers of their households, above the age of 40, with a household income of greater than $75K. Despite market research showing that the sustainable shopper encompasses a much broader segment of the population. marketers continue to create and market sustainable products only to shoppers who fit this narrow profile, limiting sustainable consumption and the movement’s own ability to grow.
At the Erb Institute, and at the University of Michigan, we are deeply committed to addressing how the lack of diversity in the broader environmental and sustainability movement limits the movement’s growth. The implications are tremendous—since 1988, just 100 companies have been the source of 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with people of color holding less than 1 percent of all senior executive posts. Recently, I had the privilege of co-organizing Erb’s first-ever Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) panel alongside fellow Erb student Kathy Tian. The panel, comprised of three business leaders, all women of color—Boma Brown-West, Gloria Hwang and Erin Patten—spoke on issues at the intersection of business, sustainability and diversity, with a specific focus on the retail and consumer goods industry. One of the most poignant points of the night came from panelist Erin Patten, CEO and founder of DāO Detroit, a company that creates natural beauty and hair care products for women of color. She spoke to how companies still lag in their efforts to bring diversity to the forefront of the sustainability movement. She stated that DāO Detroit’s plant-based products, offered at a higher price point relative to category alternatives, struggles to be accessible to lower-income consumers. While Patten’s product inherently serves communities of color, she would like to create hair products that are accessible and affordable to people across the socioeconomic spectrum—sustainable products that serve all. Patten acknowledged that the high costs associated with creating a natural, plant-based, toxic-chemical-free end product makes this difficult. Panelist Gloria Hwang, CEO and founder of Thousand Helmet, a bike helmet company rooted in a socially driven mission of reducing bicycle fatalities, acknowledged that more often than not, the costs of corporate social and environmental responsibility are transferred from the producer to the consumer, but that typically only higher-income consumers are willing or able to pay the higher premium price associated with sustainable products.
Sustainability as a movement ultimately needs to become more inclusive to gain widespread acceptance throughout society. In creating erroneous constructs of the “sustainable shopper” is and isn’t, the sustainable consumption movement limits its own scale and success. Says Hwang, “We are basically saying that low-income people don’t care about the environment. And that is just not a true statement.”
Indeed, as Patten noted during the panel, the segment of the population most likely to engage in many pro-environmental behaviors is low-income communities: “Those who are more prone to taking the bus or cycling on their bikes, or those who are more inclined to reduce usage and recycle, are generally those who cannot afford otherwise.”
Society’s biased notions of who does and does not participate in—and thus belongs to and does not belong to—the environmental movement harms both the sustainable consumption movement and the environmental movement at large. In imagining a more sustainable future, we need to see past biases and societal constructs. We need to reinvent the environmental movement to ensure that people from all backgrounds, identities and socioeconomic statuses see themselves as leaders in it. If they do not, we leave behind an entire segment of the population that would otherwise mobilize to address one of the biggest challenges of our time: climate change.
About the author, Ivy Wei:
I am currently a dual-degree master’s student at the Erb Institute, obtaining degrees in business administration and environmental behavior, education and communication. As a former marketing strategist, and an aspiring corporate sustainability manager, I look forward to helping entrepreneurs and companies innovate, develop and commercialize new products that contribute to sustainable development; promoting sustainable consumer behavior change, through the application of environmental decision-making sciences principles; and mitigating companies’ environmental impacts through sustainable production and supply chain management practices.
In the future, I look forward to using my dual MBA and MS degree to lead marketing at a sustainable consumer goods company focused on creating products that not only are commercially successful but also work to improve human well-being without harming the environment. In the long run, I hope to help develop public-private partnership programs that incentivize businesses to adopt cleaner production processes.