Brands must understand how financial pressures reshape attitudes to sustainability

Brands must understand how financial pressures reshape attitudes to sustainability
Appliance-cleaning videos have become a trend on social media

The way different consumers view sustainability goes beyond age groups. Mindshare’s latest research found that economic realities play a crucial role — and brands can use this to fine-tune their messaging.

It’s no secret that sustainability has long been at the heart of many brands’ strategies. It is also not a surprise that messaging around advertisers’ sustainability credentials resonates well with audiences when executed authentically.

The devil is in the detail, however. For brands seeking to fine-tune their sustainability messaging, the reality is more complicated.

The latest Mindshare Reality Check report, which tracks the habits and attitudes of 2,000 members of the public, set out to examine the complex and evolving relationship between people’s sustainability values and actions, and how they have been influenced by external pressures such as the pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

Sustainability makes a comeback

While it’s often assumed that younger audiences prioritise sustainability more than older people, our research during the pandemic suggested that this is not always the case.

Back then, over-65s demonstrated a higher commitment to sustainable behaviours, with 78% actively seeking to act sustainably compared with 63% of under-35s. The financial pressures brought about by the cost-of-living crisis has accentuated this shift. With younger people juggling multiple concerns, including economic stability, sustainability was not their top priority.

However, our most recent data suggests sustainability is seeing a resurgence among millennials. A significant 43% of people aged 25-44 now regard sustainability as a crucial personal issue, compared with 32% of the broader UK population. This audience is not only expressing concern but translating it into action, with 70% considering sustainable behaviour a top priority. 

More than age, however, it is financial stability that has perhaps the greatest impact on our attitudes to sustainability. We found that 91% of Londoners, who generally exhibit higher financial resilience, regard sustainability as an important issue. In contrast, regions such as the north east of England and East Midlands, which face greater financial challenges, display lower prioritisation of sustainability.

Overall, 70% of those with a positive financial outlook prioritise sustainability, against 55% of those facing financial difficulties.

Green on a budget

While those on lower incomes may not be prioritising going green, financial pressures have sometimes inadvertently driven the adoption of sustainable behaviours.

Our 2023 report Accidentally Sustainable found that saving money is a primary motivator for over-30 sustainable behaviours. This financial incentive is especially evident when it comes to resource-focused decisions, such as tracking home energy use and choosing options where the most sustainable choice is also the cheapest — for example, opting for vegetarian meals rather than meat.

These cost-saving measures have high adoption rates across the UK, particularly among those less passionate about sustainability but keen on financial savings.

Today’s trends

Regardless of motivation, our respondents told us that sustainable changes are most prevalent in their food and drink habits, with 54% of individuals reducing food waste and 27% cutting down on meat consumption.

In the beauty and fashion sectors, the drive for sustainability is most obvious in reducing packaging, extending product life cycles and avoiding fast fashion. Among our respondents, 32% now buy second-hand and 29% steer clear of fast fashion. Despite financial barriers and information gaps, there is a growing interest in these sustainable practices, driven by the dual motivations of cost savings and environmental impact.

When it comes to high-value purchases like technology and furniture that often involve more complex decision-making, participants emphasised the importance of making informed decisions and price comparisons. Here, too, the second-hand market is gaining traction, with major brands like AO leaning in to the trend and using platforms like eBay to sell refurbished appliances, catering to consumers conscious to both sustainability and cost.

Cleaning has become an unexpected hit on TikTok and other social media platforms, with huge volumes of content around how to clean big-ticket items like appliances. Although the main drivers are cleanliness and aesthetics, cleaning properly helps to extend the life of appliances and can reduce running costs.

The role for brands

Despite the complexities of people’s behaviour, brands play an increasingly important role in shaping consumer attitudes towards sustainability.

Consumers are looking to others for guidance, with the influence of brands on sustainable behaviour doubling since 2020. Trustworthy, reliable and reputable brands are key to this.

Notably, sources of sustainability information have evolved. Back in 2021, our main sources of information were TV programmes and conversations with friends and family. Today, Google is the top source, especially among younger audiences, while video content and influencers are becoming increasingly important, with short-form video now the leading content format for under-24s (33%).

To resonate with diverse audiences, brands must tailor their sustainability messaging. Motivations for sustainable decisions are multifaceted, often driven by financial savings. This means that messaging that highlights a range of benefits and addresses conflicting advice can foster greater adoption.

Inspirational content that visualises the impact of sustainable choices is particularly effective, especially for younger audiences who prefer engaging, video-based formats over written content. As well as this emotionally rich content, there’s also a secondary need for more functional information — from facts and figures to practical advice to self-development-focused content.

By understanding these trends and tailoring strategies accordingly, brands can effectively engage with consumers, fostering a culture of sustainability that aligns with both environmental goals and economic realities.

Julia Ayling squareJulia Ayling is UK insight director at Mindshare

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