If consumers believe “healthy = environmental,” where does that leave your environmental message?

by Aug 2, 2018

Understanding the mental models people use to construct their worldview is a crucial component of any market research. Since we work in the sustainability sphere, most of the models we encounter pertain to how people understand their relationship with the environment, and one of the models we see most frequently is the belief that the environment is a closed system.

Americans who interpret their world this way believe that what they put out into the world will eventually come back to them. Because of this, we see a recurring mindset in our research where consumers believe that whatever is good for them has to be good for the environment, as well. Now, whether that belief is true or not is another issue entirely, but we see this mindset manifested in how consumers perceive a brand’s environmental mission: a brand does not necessarily have to be actively engaged in environmental protection to be perceived as being “environmental.”

This construct has a larger impact when it comes to brands that produce what we refer to as “in-me” or “on-me” products. If people ingest a product, or if it comes in contact with their skin, they tend to be much more concerned about its health implications than if the product exists further away from their body. This is where the mental model of the environment being a closed system comes into play. If something I eat or put on my skin does not harm me, then it must not harm the environment – thus, a brand that works to protect my health is protecting the environment’s health as well.

We see respondents restate this exact belief time and time again in our research when we ask them about the environmental missions of some of their favorite brands, and we just saw it again in our most recent Pulse qualitative work:

“I think [Wegmans’] environmental purpose is great. They have their own brand called Food You Feel Good About. It’s food that is healthy for you. It has no artificial flavors, coloring, etc., so I know it’s healthy for you.”

“[Lundberg Rice] farms rice with low levels of arsenic that makes it healthier for us to eat… [Its environmental purpose is] its core value of providing more organic rice products.”

“I love the Nature’s Promise brand because they are USDA certified and produce products in respect to the environment. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but when I buy meat I always buy this brand because I know they use animals that were well taken care of in a way that respects the environment… That’s why I like them because I know the food I’m getting is high quality, and I know I’m not putting additives and chemicals into my body.”

This connection between a consumer’s health and the environment’s opens up a debate about what commitments a company really needs to make to the environment to be seen as an environmentally friendly brand. Do “in me” and “on me” brands need to commit to zero carbon output in order to be seen as “environmental?” Or do they simply need to make products that are healthier/better for people?

Americans seem to be under the impression that offering natural products that sport organic and non-GMO labels is enough for a food/personal care/cleaning product brand to earn its environmental merit badge. And, for right now, being seen as a “healthy” brand might be enough to be considered “environmental” by consumers.

The reality, though, is that at the level our world is experiencing them now, CO2 emissions are unhealthy for people and the planet. So you can’t truly be a “healthy” brand unless both your products and your company are committed to protecting human and environmental health. You might get away with focusing only on human health for now. But, eventually, if your company creates a negative impact on the environment in how it manufactures, transports and deals with waste, it won’t matter how healthy the products are – you’ll be ruled an environmental bad guy in the court of public opinion. And that merit badge will be stripped away.

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About the Author

Daniel Ford

Daniel works on multiple aspects of our qualitative research, helping design field studies, moderating fieldwork, and analyzing primary data as well as managing projects for clients like ExxonMobil, Avista and Environmental Defense Fund to ensure they stay on track. As an anthropologist, Daniel brings a unique perspective focused on the nexus between cultural patterns and consumer behavior. Daniel came on board as an intern in October of 2016 and became a full-time Shelton employee in 2018. Prior to Shelton, he held a research internship with the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee. His thesis for his Anthropology degree examined the role gender and racial diversity play in the perception of beer advertising on social media among college students.

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