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Despite so much constant change happening around us, as humans we’re not good at coping with it. In fact, it’s estimated that over 70% of change programmes fail to achieve the expected benefits.1 We’re now faced with the biggest change any of us will experience in our lifetime: wholesale systemic change of the planetary ecosystem. The stakes have never been higher, with the survival of life on earth as we know it now dependent on adapting to this change.

Responding to the climate crisis will require transformation at organisational and system levels, as well as a major shift in consumer behaviour. Businesses must decide whether they want to play a role in leading their customers through this transition, and this starts with understanding how customers are experiencing this change.

The four stages of change and consumer behaviour

The change curve, or Kubler-Ross curve, describes the typical stages we go through when experiencing significant change, each characterised by a range of emotional responses. An individual can move in either direction along the curve, and at different rates and levels of intensity. Ideally, you want to move right along the curve, avoid getting stuck and reduce the strength of any negative feelings.

With news about the climate crisis becoming harder to avoid and climate anxiety on the rise, we’re all on a change journey in our response to the crisis. Along the way, there are four types of consumer behaviour commonly seen.

1. Denial: Denial of our role in the climate crisis, a belief that it’s up to governments and scientists to solve, and that we don’t have to change our behaviour. Some might even deny that there is a climate crisis at all.

The apathetic consumer makes shopping choices based on convenience, price or simply what suits, without consideration for the wider environmental and social impact.

2. Resistance: Fearful of what the climate crisis means for us but resistant to make changes to our lifestyle. This can manifest as feelings of helplessness or defensiveness.

The avoidant consumer finds justification for their choices to avoid feelings of guilt and to carry on with the status quo. For example, claiming that individual choices have little impact, or looking for ‘evidence’ to disprove inconvenient truths.  

3. Exploration: Gradual acceptance of the need to make lifestyle changes and begins experimenting with new ways to alter consumption habits.

The conscious consumer begins to question the linear economy model of taking, consuming and disposing. They become more selective in their choice of products and brands, and explore the circularity principles of reducing, reusing and recycling.  

4. Commitment: Finding what works well for us and starting to integrate these new climate-friendly behaviours into our lifestyle, until we can’t imagine going back to how things were before.

The principled consumer becomes a role model and advocate for mindful consumption and champions circularity. They avoid certain products, brands and behaviours on principle, even if it is less convenient or more costly to do so.

The change curve – our behaviour in response to the climate crisis​

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Implications for consumer businesses

With a growing proportion of consumers becoming more concerned about climate change and seeking to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, consumer businesses need to adapt if they want to stay relevant.

While many consumers want to live more sustainably, they don’t always know how. Our sustainable shopping habits report revealed that 48% of UK consumers are interested in sustainability, but face barriers such as not knowing where to find sustainable options (33%) and not understanding what is and isn’t sustainable (20%).2

Meanwhile, with limited cognitive capacity for decision making, consumers often default to the easiest choice. Organisations that make it easier for their customers to change, and help educate them, are therefore likely to attract this growing market.

Recommended actions to help you enable this shift

1. Make sustainability central to your business strategy

Embed sustainability into your corporate strategy and operating model, supported by transformation plans to deliver on it. Without this, any other effort will seem disingenuous and likely be ineffective. Go further by incorporating sustainability into your purpose or mission statement – according to our Havas meaningful brands study, 64% of citizens prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for having a purpose beyond just profits.3 For example, outdoor apparel brand Patagonia put the planet at the heart of their purpose when they announced in late 2022 that the earth would become the company’s only shareholder and they would give away all company profits to fight climate change.4

2. Empower through information

Empower consumers by providing clear, accessible and easy-to-consume information about the impact of your products and services. Dispelling rumours can help move consumers from avoidance to recognising the truth, helping them confront unsustainable choices head on and encouraging them to explore new options. For example, producer of plant-based milk Oatly makes use of a playful tone of voice and illustrations on their packaging and in their annual sustainability reports to communicate sustainable food information to their customers, while also being memorable and engaging.

3. Amplify the message responsibly

Use creative and engaging ways to connect with your consumers to raise awareness on why sustainability matters to your organisation, and what you’re doing about it. Take care not to inadvertently engage in greenwashing and be transparent about where your organisation is on its sustainability journey. For example, global sportswear brand Adidas made international cricketer Rohit Sharma one of their sustainability ambassadors, in a collaboration to launch a sustainable apparel collection for the Indian market, raising awareness and inspiring positive change.5

4. Collaborate to drive systemic change

Wholesale shift in consumer behaviour relies on rewiring the wider system, not just within organisational boundaries. This means working with all stakeholder groups, including suppliers, policy makers, regulators, communities, NGOs, and even competitors, to drive systemic change. Cross-industry coalitions exist in various sectors, with ambitions to drive industry-wide change for people and the planet. For example, signatories to the Courtauld Commitment 2030 are collaborating to fix the food system,6 and Forum for the Future’s climate and health coalition aims to accelerate the integrated transformation of our health and climate systems.7 Meanwhile, the Institute of Positive Fashion aims to accelerate a circular fashion ecosystem by 2030,8 and Better Cotton is setting standards to improve the sector for all stakeholders, including cotton communities and the environment.9

Leading the way

Businesses must act now to be at the forefront of supporting their customers towards a more sustainable future, otherwise they risk being seen as a brand that’s not fit to serve our planet and the needs of future consumers.

It’s important that your customers still have options along with the space to experiment and change. Businesses should still aim to give freedom of choice within a sustainable framework, and a broad enough selection of products and services, to ensure consumers don’t feel that they’re missing out by choosing to shop more sustainably.

Becoming a leader in this space requires commitment to drive real change. This needs to be underpinned by the right strategy and transformation plan to move your organisation along its own sustainability change curve, before supporting your consumers on theirs.

Tori Walker

The time is now for businesses to take action to show they are a key part of the solution and not just the problem. Gate One can help businesses to overcome the challenges and explore the opportunities being a sustainable business unlocks.

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