Mark McGinn, Executive Director, Sustainability and Social Impact, Edelman, explores the “say-do” gap when it comes to sustainability behaviors and shares the environmental sustainability messages that best resonate with consumers to accelerate consumer demand and drive a pivot toward a more sustainable world."

This article is part of a Spotlight EMEA series on how brands can shift the sustainability conversation. Read more

A recent Forbes Health/One poll survey found that of that 87% of people who had set themselves New Year’s resolutions were very or somewhat likely to keep it through the year. Yet – spoiler alert – the same poll found that only 7% stuck with it for the whole year or beyond. As you reflect on the underused gym membership, unread books and unplayed musical instrument, this may sound familiar. The intent was there, but the action was missing.

We see this “say-do gap” in our choices around sustainable lifestyles. Edelman’s recent Trust and Climate Change Report showed that as the realities of climate change are becoming more personal, awareness and concern are increasing universally. 93% of respondents, nearly 14,000 across 14 markets, said they believe that climate change poses a serious and imminent threat to the planet, as most say the weather has become more extreme where they live, and they worry climate change will make life difficult for them and their family.

In response, they want to take agency of the problem they see and feel. They want to take action. A large global majority want to live in a more climate-friendly lifestyle.

However, 67% said that there is a meaningful gap between how climate-friendly their lifestyle is vs. how they would like it to be. The intent is there, but the action is missing.

Can brands help close this gap and what opportunity arises if we do?

Among the 67% who say there is a meaningful gap in how climate-friendly their lifestyle is vs. how they would want it to be, the second highest barrier they face, after costs, is a lack of information on products and solutions. Something that brand leaders are most able to help.

To understand how best brands can help, Edelman partnered with the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) and nine iconic brands to develop research that identified which environmental sustainability claims or messages best resonated with consumers in order to accelerate consumer demand and drive a pivot toward a more sustainable world.

Not surprisingly, we learnt that people go to brands for their core product value proposition, which for most brands doesn't yet centre around sustainability. This means that core category claims – e.g. tastes good, performs well, washes whites whiter – are paramount and non-negotiable in communication. Consumers look for benefits that are germane to the category and core category claims remain the most compelling claims in testing.

However, sustainability claims also yielded a significant benefit, with all nine brands seeing a sustainability claim as either the most appealing (2 of 9 brands) or the second most appealing (7 of 9 brands) claims, outperforming other category claims exposed.

Importantly, when coupled with a top-performing category claim, sustainability claims have a dramatic amplifier effect on a brand's reach and appeal. Across all nine brands, sustainability claims significantly expanded brand reach by +24 to +33 ppt. In doing so, bringing in new audiences to your brand and informing more people about the sustainable choices available.

And this sustainability messaging has mainstream appeal. The right sustainability messages resonated across all demographics and psychographic cohorts, with all topics performing particularly strongly to Gen Z but not exclusively to them. This is not a niche topic.

But what is the right sustainability message?

Start by focusing on sustainability messages that are tightly linked to the core product value proposition or core category claim. For greatest appeal, link sustainability to your reason for being as a brand or product. E.g.“Formulated with sustainable ingredients that are good for your skin”, “100% sustainably farmed for great taste”, “100% sustainably farmed for great quality and delicious taste”.

This is because linking sustainability to personal benefit is critical for driving appeal. Just as most New Year’s resolutions are focused on ‘me’ rather than ‘we’, we need to highlight that sustainable options are not a choice between ‘me’ and ‘we’, they’re both. This is something that has been done poorly in sustainability communication so far. Too often the topic is framed in a global, planetary context which is too abstract and unrelatable to most people. Instead, we need to emphasise the benefits to the individual's world, not just the world.

Frame the benefits against the things that they care most about: the health and happiness of themselves and their families, the future world for their children and next generations, the wellbeing of animals and sustainable sourcing. Remember that scientific terminologies and certifications often have little cut-through. They should be used to deliver credibility, not reach.

More broadly, beware of jargon. Try to avoid technical sustainability claims when speaking to mass consumers and focus on the result, not the process, or, better still, combine them for the greatest impact. For example, testing for messaging of a product claiming it “is biodegradable” scored 25 ppt lower than testing for the same product with the message: “is biodegradable to protect drinking water and marine life”.

As brand leaders, if we acknowledge and understand people’s “say-do gap” we can help overcome one of the biggest barriers to action through impactful and understandable communication.

By developing messaging in simple everyday language that emphasises benefits to “my world” – it saves me money, it’s better for my health, it supports my local farmers – rather than just “the world” – it reduces emissions, it pollutes fewer rivers, it helps the farming industry – we can help people choose the lifestyle they desire. We will deepen our relationships with our customers, create demand for the sustainable products and services that we need to scale, and realise the full value of our investments.

And help keep a few more resolutions intact too.