To overcome barriers to sustainability and drive adoption, Kantar’s Trezelene Chan says companies must make it easy for Asian consumers to choose sustainable products or services, whilst also making it a meaningful and rewarding choice.

With the UN IPCC’s publication of its latest report on climate impact, the sustainability conversation continues around the globe, with the latest trending topics in Asia around fashion, e-waste, veganism, eco tech and green investments. But brands aren’t doing enough for people to adopt new sustainable behaviours.

As we swing from single use to re-use and back again in the face of hygiene and safety needs, and the “new normal” vernacular dominates discussion with ever-changing definition, many people are still trying to understand what they can personally do about it and can be forgiven for struggling to turn this into action.

It is more important than ever to get sustainability right

Asians are eager to see real change when it comes to sustainable transformation, according to Kantar’s recently launched global Sustainability Sector Index including Sustainability: The Asia Story, which surveyed almost 10,000 consumers in nine countries across Asia.

Three in five (58%) tell us they are prepared to invest their time and money to support businesses that do good. But there is still a huge discrepancy between how people act and their values, with 63% saying they don't feel that it is their responsibility. Rather, consumer expectation is that businesses and producers should act on climate change and as such, we are seeking out brands demonstrating true social and environmental purpose across the region.

While we expect to see more innovative sustainable actions, solutions and initiatives from brands in 2022, the question remains: is that enough for pandemic-weary people to adopt new sustainable behaviours?

  • Three in five (58%) tell us that they are “personally affected” by environmental issues but the same number (56%) travel by car instead of walking or taking public transport, and seven in ten choose meat over a vegetarian option (69%).
  • Seven in ten are buying brand new things, not second-hand (70%), and pre-packaged products, rather than refilling (68%).

People want to make responsible choices but expect total sustainability throughout the supply chain. Whatever your focus, it is imperative to understand where your category has a right to play, as issues are not equally relevant across categories. 

There are many well-publicised examples of brands that have faced criticism from consumers as they don’t see the link between the brand with the issues, and even accusations of green or white-washing, such as banks planting trees to “save” the environment or soft drink manufacturers “solving” racial protests through advertising support.

Three in four shoppers think more about saving money than the planet

The big job for brands is to balance and integrate the need for cost and convenience with inspiring sustainable behavioural change. Because if consumers don’t take action, the future is bleak. Brands must lead by example to help close the all-important value-action gap.

As Kantar’s behavioural change expert Dr Nicki Morley writes, this is “the disparity that exists between the intention to behave in a better way versus the reality of undertaking that action.”

She also counsels that “it is important not only to understand behaviour but also choice, as sometimes behaviour changes without us making a conscious choice, whereas other times we make intentional decisions.”

“Choice will significantly impact whether or not people choose your brand in the future.”

The reality is that even though most people don’t need to be convinced about the importance of sustainability, it is not carrying through to their behaviour. The caveat is mindset around cost and convenience.

Extra costs deliver a major brake on consumer adoption, while over three in five people “can’t be bothered” to try the sustainable alternative unless it’s easy (62%) or don’t want to risk trying something new (62%).

Current levels of comfort and familiarity with existing options mean winning against incumbents can be a real challenge. For people to adopt change, the scales must balance cost and convenience but never compromise on experience.

So where can brands make a real impact in Asia?

Our Digital Analytics analysis shows interesting similarities between developing and developed markets as we tuned in to over 41 million online searches and conversations across five years to understand the latest shifts in sustainability trends.

Collectively, we’re increasingly focused on waste management, especially e-waste, while searches around veganism and plant-based diets continue to grow – albeit more action-oriented, for example, “vegan recipes”, “vegan restaurants around me”, etc. A recent US study found that swapping just one food item per day can make diets substantially more planet-friendly.

Searches around sustainable financial investments are at a nascent stage but growing rapidly too. However, there are interesting contrasts to note. While volumes are high on recycling in developed markets like Singapore and Australia, its search trend is declining; do consumers feel they know enough about it? In developing markets, interest continues to grow.

Eco tech also resonates, with potential for product application like environmentally friendly plastic and eco-friendly packaging.

A key trend is sustainable transformation in fashion and it’s not hard to understand why. UN reports reveal that every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. And if nothing changes, by 2050, the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

Yet the sustainable fashion market is growing at a faster rate than the rest of the industry, led by brands championing the recycling of discarded materials and garments, upcycling, utilising renewable resources and garment rentals. Growing interest in sustainable fashion and clothing in Australia and Singapore is driven by searches around ethical clothing brands and upcycling ideas for clothes and furniture, while sustainable fashion predicts 108% and 265% growth for Indonesia and Vietnam in the long term.

These trends are replicated across other developing markets – interest is evident in branded sustainable clothes.

Reward consumers choosing sustainable products or services

Businesses in Asia should take the lead to help close the value-action gap with social, sustainable and commercial rewards. The Kantar Sustainability survey shows that the most pressing issues that brands must address in each sector of the economy are…

  • Consumers expect financial services businesses to deal with tax evasion, financial illiteracy and economic inequality. Companies can stand out and gain commercial advantage by tackling poverty and hunger.
  • In the food industry, retailers and producers are expected to act on issues relating to overconsumption and overpackaging, with overwork a commonly cited area where action can drive recognition among consumers.
  • The issue that will differentiate sustainability actions by companies in the gaming and technology sector is mental health, with tax evasion and lack of access to the internet acting as hygiene factors.
  • Fashion brands need to tackle waste, at a minimum, and cut through to consumers by working to eradicate overwork and worker exploitation.

Asia’s stage of growth and the fact that it houses some of the world’s most innovative companies provide huge potential to create commercial value and address environmental and social issues.

A recent study by Bain projects an economic value of US$1 trillion if Southeast Asian economies go green by 2030. And we know from Kantar’s BrandZ that building brands with strong brand purpose makes good commercial sense.

Those who are more progressive will develop stronger brand value and reap greater commercial rewards. In 2022, the challenge is set. What can brands do to make sustainable changes easy, compelling and meaningful for consumers to close the gap between their good intentions and actions?