Demystifying the Say-Do Gap
Why people don’t shop sustainably, when all the data suggests they want to.
Awareness of climate change
We are aware of the poor state of our planet - and we have been for a long time. Most of us know that the world is facing, and has been for a while, a very severe problem - the climate crisis. One report tells us that over 80 % of UK respondents reported that they are either very concerned or fairly concerned about climate change.¹
These are not new revelations - the first report warning of the impact of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere dates back to 1896². In 1988 the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.³
We have been aware of the climate change problem for a long time and the majority of the British population is genuinely concerned.
What is the Say-Do Gap?
Countless reports tell us that people want to consume more sustainably. People want to change their behaviours to be more sustainable - right? If we are to believe what they say, then absolutely.
This report from Censuswide in 2023 suggests that Brits are incredibly conscious shoppers.⁴ According to what people say, non-sustainable brands should really be struggling at the minute, whereas sustainable brands should be flourishing.
The reality tells a completely different story, with unsustainable consumption steadily continuing. Companies like Amazon, who are continuously called out for their unsustainable⁵ and unethical practices⁶, continue to grow year-on-year⁷, even during tough economic times. Instead, sustainable products are much tougher to sell, with consumers struggling to justify the spend.⁸
65% of consumers say they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability.
Only 26% do so.⁹
This is called the Say-Do Gap.
The Say-Do Gap refers to the gap that exists between how much consumers claim to be influenced by sustainable and ethical practices when shopping and how much they actually are. Because no matter how much people claim to be impacted by their knowledge of climate change, their actions don’t show it.
This isn’t because people are intentionally lying. But people are being asked the wrong questions in many of these surveys. The surveys don’t tap into people’s reality and how they actually live their lives and how their behaviours are shaped.
Bad surveys are to blame for a lot of unreliable statistics and false assumptions about consumers. Asking consumers what they think immediately opens yourself up to responses that are skewed and that don’t reflect their actual behaviour.
This is because when you ask people a question, that question becomes disproportionately relevant to them. Because they have been asked, they will undoubtedly consider what you have said and how that fits into their life. This causes us to overlook the behavioural context that applies when people are living their lives.¹⁰
Bad surveys and questionable data has long been skewing our understanding of how sustainability fits into people’s lives, and why there is such a big gap between what people say and what they do.
“People don't think how they feel, they don't say what they think, and they don't do what they say.”
Barriers to sustainability
So why are people finding it so difficult to realise their well-meaning intent to be more sustainable?
There are many barriers that people face regularly that hinder their ability to make more sustainable choices and behavioural changes. Although we’re unable to outline every single blocker people face, we have identified key barriers that impact a large group of consumers regularly. These are barriers we see have a genuine impact on the clients we have who work with sustainable initiatives and products.
What are these barriers?
People don't see themselves as solely responsible for sustainability
There’s a correlation between feeling responsible for the climate and taking positive actions to address climate change. For people to be willing to take action on climate, they need to feel as if it’s their responsibility.¹¹
But people don’t see sustainability as solely their responsibility. Research done by Swedish scientists Wolrath Söderberg & Wormbs¹² found that people tend to shift the responsibility to other institutions or people, or find a way to claim that their non-eco-friendly action is exempt from judgement due to an exception.
This tendency is seen across the globe.
A majority of Europeans think that the European Union (56%), national governments (56%), business and industry (53%) are responsible for tackling climate change. Only 35% hold themselves personally responsible.¹³
63% of Asians don’t feel sustainability is their responsibility and it is up to organisations.¹⁴
Through research done by Bain, Harvard Business Review reported that half of US consumers believe that brands and retailers are responsible for helping consumers shop sustainably.¹⁵
To drive sustainable behaviour people need to see themselves as responsible - but the majority of people don’t. Brands leaning too heavily on sustainability claims are focusing all their efforts on messaging that does little to drive changes in consumers behaviours. Brands either need to increase consumers feeling of responsibility, or create a meaning that's different from sustainability that the target audience will value higher.
Consumers see sustainable products as a sacrifice in quality.
Sustainability doesn’t mean it is lower quality. However, this isn't always how consumers see it. Consumers often have negative associations with sustainable product options, viewing them as being of lower quality, less aesthetically pleasing, and more expensive. It is a sacrifice to invest in sustainable products.¹⁶
“Part of the reason is that making smart environmental decisions is sometimes viewed as a sacrifice, rather than a pleasure.”
Executive Vice-President Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at L'Oréal
Sustainable brands needs to work harder than other brands to showcase the high quality of their products, discrediting the notion that their product is lesser just because it's better for the planet.
Sustainability is seen as more expensive
Budgets are tight and financial confidence is decreasing. At the same time, sustainable products are notoriously more expensive than non-sustainable ones.¹⁷
Financial confidence refers to people’s belief in their ability to afford certain things, and how secure they feel regarding their finances. If people have low financial confidence they are less likely to spend money on things they find indulgent.
The cost-of-living crisis is ripe in the UK and the population feels the financial pressures of the economic climate. To save money, we see Brits downtrading to cheaper options - hoping to keep their living standards the same but for a cheaper price. This means that they are less willing to spend more money on something that they don’t consider worth the investment.¹⁸
Brands need to mean more to consumers than just "sustainable" for people to be able to justify the larger spend. Tesla is an example of a company that produces a product (electric cars) that is known to be sustainable - but when you buy a Tesla you don't buy a sustainable car. You buy an early adopter lifestyle. You buy innovation.
To charge a premium cost brands need to bring more value than sustainability to consumers.
There's a relevancy gap between how organisations and people view sustainability
There is a huge gulf between the way sustainability is talked about by organisations & the reality of people’s everyday lives, both at work & at home.
The language barrier.
What organisations define as sustainable action, may, to a regular person, just be “the way we do things”. Someone may be passionate about living sustainably, but never define it in those terms.
We need to speak people’s language.
The misaligned motivators.
Organisations tend to focus on the vast scale of issues of sustainability to influence action. In reality, people are often much more motivated by local or immediate human needs and values, for instance, “my family’ or “my community”.
We need to bring it into people's daily lives.
The misplaced focus of influence.
Organisations are, by their very nature speaking to people as an outsider, but people form values, behaviours and beliefs in the context of community society at large, their local community and their close circles.
We need to connect through communities.¹⁹
Brands have a significant role to play in creating a more sustainable society.
We know that people want a more sustainable world and view the climate as a priority - but they constantly face blockers in their lives that hinder their motivation and their ability to change their behaviours for the better. If we stand a chance of decreasing the Say-Do Gap, brands can’t just make sustainable choices available to people, they need to actively help and assist consumers to choose them.
We need to remove the barriers - making sustainability simple.
Share of respondents who are concerned about climate change in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2023, Statista
How Do We Know Climate Change Is Real?, NASA
History of the IPCC, IPCC
The new retail reality, Barclays
Amazon destroying millions of items of unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses every year, ITV News investigation finds, ITV
Opinion: Amazon’s business model is inhumane and unsustainable, Market Watch
Amazon Gross Profit 2010-2023 | AMZN, Macro Trends
Sustainable products aren’t an easy sell in tough economic times, The Grocer
The Elusive Green Consumer, Harvard Business Review
Asking For Trouble, Jon Cohen, 2021
Addressing the Sustainability Say-Do Gap, Ipsos
Thinking structures of climate delay: internal deliberations among Swedes with sustainable ambitions, Wolrath Söderberg & Wormbs
Eurobarometer - Climate Change, European Union
What does sustainability mean to Asian consumers, and what should brands do?, Kantar
How Brands Can Sell to Environmentally Conscious Nonconsumers, Harvard Business Review
Why don’t more people buy sustainable products?, Yale Climate Connections
Deloitte data says sustainability is expensive for consumers, Sustainabilitymag
Global Issues Barometer, Kantar