Consumers' concerns about climate change don’t always translate into sustainability-driven actions and purchase behaviours. Catherine Driscoll, WARC’s EMEA Commissioning Editor, introduces a collection of articles to help close the intention-action gap and provide brands with practical insights for effective sustainability communications.

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

2023 was a pivotal year for climate change. It was the hottest year on record and saw more frequent extreme weather events with unprecedented wildfires, drought and extreme flooding. As the impact of climate change becomes more tangible, according to research by Edelman, 93% of respondents, nearly 14,000 across 14 markets, said they believe that climate change poses a serious and imminent threat to the planet, but 67 percent of respondents also say there is a meaningful gap between how climate-friendly their lifestyle is and how climate-friendly they would like to be. This EMEA Spotlight shares insights to help marketers in Europe navigate some of the challenges around sustainability for brands and consumers, to support proactive change in the year ahead.

Research for WARC’s 2024 Marketer’s Toolkit showed businesses in EMEA are at the forefront of seeking how to tackle these challenges. But while sustainability is a huge focus for the region there are many ways brands can improve their contribution. The scale of the problem in advertising is highlighted by Chiara Manco, Creative & Media Partnership Director, System1 in her article “The Greenprint: An actionable guide to impactful environmental advertising.” System1 analysed 1,000 UK TV ads from the past three years and found that only 8% featured an environmental message and those that did focused on some of the behaviours that are least impactful. As well as outlining the challenge, the article goes on to share six strategies to guide brands in creating ads that drive meaningful change and deliver profitable growth.

Circana consumer research shows that 68% of European consumers want to buy goods that are better for the environment, so why aren’t sustainability-marketed products performing better? Brands often assume people are put off buying sustainability-marketed products because of price, and while this is a factor, information and availability are also important. The Edelman study showed the second highest barrier consumers face, after costs, is a lack of information on products and solutions. Physical availability also remains crucial for shoppers, particularly when buying new products. In his article “Brands face hard truths on sustainability”, Ananda Roy, SVP & Consumer Goods Industry Advisor, Circana, explains “When manufacturers don’t ensure that their heavily promoted sustainable products are on shelf, they are effectively denying consumers access to shop in the way that they would really like – i.e. buying products that they see to be at a good price but also better for the environment.”

Pietro Leone, founder and CEO of Lens Marketing, focuses on customer journeys in “Sustainability and purchase behaviour: insights for closing the intention-action gap” and shares research into consumers’ attitudes and purchase behaviour for more sustainable living in different European countries and also in different categories. In Poland, Czechia, and Hungary, the research revealed that while 88% are aware of sustainability, a mere 7% have a comprehensive understanding of the term and the steps needed for a sustainable lifestyle. And differences across categories are notable too. An impressive 98% of consumers consider sustainability important in home improvement and home building, with a robust 78% opting for sustainable choices. In contrast, the automotive sector, despite the known environmental implications of diesel and petrol engines, achieves a 75% consideration rate and a conversion rate of 54%. In a short purchase cycle for pasta, sustainability is still a significant consideration for 58% of consumers in the UK and Sweden, although the purchase conversion rate lags at 38%. The research explores the motivations behind purchasing in the three categories as well as the barriers to buying more sustainable products.

Closing this intention-action gap when it comes to sustainability purchasing and behaviours is the focus for Mark McGinn, Executive Director of Sustainability and Social Impact at Edelman in “Focus on my world to change the world”. He advises that “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.” Edelman research into the effects of brands’ sustainability claims found that when coupled with a top-performing category claim, sustainability claims have a dramatic amplifier effect on a brand’s reach and appeal.

To take a step back, it can be hard for businesses to know where to start to future-proof their organisation for a changing planet. In Defining sustainability and why sustainable transformation is crucial for business success, Rania Laing, founder and CEO of Purposeful Innovators, unpicks the overlapping meaning behind purpose, ESG and CSR and provides a new, practical sustainable transformation framework for businesses. By adopting a systemic approach to understanding sustainability models, businesses can take early action to become more responsible and more sustainable in the long term. And as Rania Laing cautions, “Unsustainable practices have a direct impact on an organisation’s key macro factors as per their PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) analysis.”

And the final article in the Spotlight, “Waste not, want not: How fighting food waste can unlock brand growth” puts some of this advice into practice. Alex Lewis, Co-Founder of Revolt, tackles the issue of food waste and provides multiple examples of how European brands are working to reduce food waste, and in doing so are not only helping to solve a climate issue, but will have a “strong foundation for sustainability communications that help build a stronger, more valuable brand.” Enjoy a feast of food for thought across all these articles!

For more on the topic, also visit WARC’s Sustainability Hub.