Three Important Shifts with Americans and Sustainability

by Feb 28, 2020

Shelton Stat of the Week

74% of Gen Z is anxious about climate change, significantly more than other generations (overall, over half of us 57% – are anxious).

Three Important Shifts with Americans and Sustainability

Three important shifts with Americans and sustainability

In my last post I wrote about the convergence of sustainability and corporate social responsibility under the banner of ESG – a pretty big shift happening inside the Corporate World. Today I’m focusing on three shifts in public perception and behavior that will impact every company’s marketing strategy and, in some cases, their business strategy. We will be doing more primary research on each of these topics in 2020 to better understand the trends our research team is identifying via social media, other firms’ research and through conversations with various sustainability professionals. Specifically, we will be looking for how these trends interact with consumer expectations of companies, their brand preferences and their propensities to purchase. We will keep you posted on our findings; in the meantime, these are the shifts we have identified.

  1. Gen Z is burning down the house. Much like how people in the developing world leap-frogged landlines and went straight to cell phones, Gen Z is reimagining transportation, nutrition and their purchases at large in the name of rescuing the future.  In our social listening, we see anger and resentment. This audience is angry that they’ve been born into an inherently unsustainable system  – that they’ve inherited problems they didn’t create and that they’re also expected to fix those problems. They also feel guilty about it – they enjoy and have benefitted from advantages that are embedded in our current, unsustainable system. As a result, they’re taking matters into their own hands. For instance, people are bypassing vegetarianism altogether as we see a big push towards veganism. The firm Gen Z Insights notes that 79 percent of Gen Zers are “eager to go meatless” a few times a week, with 60 percent happily reporting they’re ready to base their diets on more “plant-forward foods.” In research from Allison+Partners some 30% of Gen Zs surveyed have no intention or desire to get a driver’s license. In our Energy Pulse research last fall, roughly 60% of Gen Z consumers we surveyed believe they will use autonomous vehicles by 2029. The obvious question or implication is — what happens to the meat industry and the automotive industry if a portion of the next generation opts out? How can those industries – and other industries that are viewed as unsustainable – get in front of this and change their business models now to survive and thrive in the future?
  2. Shifting 180 degrees, individual recycling rates are heading in the wrong direction. Some of this is simply due to the broken recycling system. A November 2019 piece in Waste Dive reported as many as 60 municipal curbside recycling programs had been shut down in the wake of China’s refusal to accept our trash anymore. But it’s not just that. Before the ubiquity of Amazon, big cardboard shipping boxes were broken down in the “back of house” area at retail locations and picked up regularly for recycling. That volume is going down as more of us receive those boxes at our homes and are left to recycle them on our own. In some cases we just don’t do it, tossing them in the trash instead. In other cases, we contaminate the boxes in our recycling bins (think rain or liquids from other rinsed-but-not-dried recyclables) making them impossible to recycle. If the promise of recycling isn’t kept, how will guilt-ridden consumers respond? How will they demand brands rethink packaging and shift from single use to multi-use/durable options? Will they choose to reduce their consumption altogether?
  3. More and more Americans want to be seen as good people who buy good products from good companies. At Shelton Group we refer to this as, “the new conspicuous consumption.” We want to be seen as the person who wears Tom’s shoes, uses Jessica Alba’s products and, if we drive, drives a Tesla (there’s a great parody on that here). We have reached a point where a sizable number of Americans won’t really believe a product is green if they don’t believe the company behind the product is green. It’s not enough anymore to make products that are better for people and the planet; you have to manufacture them in an environmentally friendly way (using renewable energy and producing zero waste), source key ingredients from responsible suppliers (no child labor or rain forest decimation), support your communities (give back) and take good care of your people (pay a living wage). If yours is a company well known for your “good” products, and you’ve been riding those coattails as your sustainability story, it’s time to get serious about your corporate commitments, actions and storytelling.

Stay tuned over 2020 as we dig into all of this and share more insights and marketing ideas related to all three of these trends!


Contact Shelton Group about your next project.


News of the Week

Green Is The Hottest Color In The Toy Box, As Manufacturers Embrace Sustainability – Forbes

The profitability of the toy industry has historically been driven by the disposable nature of the beast. Toys have in many cases been manufactured to last only long enough for kids to outgrow them and have been manufactured in a way that made disposable via recycling or composting virtually impossible. Things are changing in a big way for the toy industry. “Sustainable, recyclable and plant-based were the most popular adjectives in the exhibit booths at this year’s New York Toy Fair, as toy makers large and small announced initiatives and new products designed to show their devotion to planet earth.” Visit the article to see who’s showing up to play in the sustainable toy sandbox. Read more.

Create sustainability and lower your bills with a green remodel – Seattle Times

Consumers are becoming more and more ‘consumed’ with guilt over the negative impact they’re making and the seemingly hopeless pursuit of incorporating waste reduction practices into their daily lives at home and work. Many feel the best way to protect the planet begins with their homes. Rather than buying new, many homeowners are choosing to stay put and remodel, and they’re taking a pointedly sustainable approach by updating insulation, plugging holes, switching out lighting and more. And the best part? Less energy used is $$ saved. Learn what it takes to remodel sustainably. Read more.

Americans Say ‘Enough’ to Plastic

American consumers care about the problem of plastic waste more than ever – even more than climate change, in fact, our research reveals. We polled 1,000 Americans on environmental issues, and “plastics in the ocean” ranked as their top concern. Now is the time for brands to create solutions and tell their stories. Find out more in our free report.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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