Sustainability and the “say-do” gap

Sustainability and the “say-do” gap

Actions speak louder than words …

Most tracking studies report that in the UK the vast majority of adults believe that every individual has a responsibility to act sustainably and that they would like to do more themselves (90-95% depending on which study1 you read).  Fulfilling that responsibility is hindered partly by confusion with around 60%1 of consumers finding it difficult to understand which choices are more sustainable than others. 

Consumers and shoppers are full of good intentions when it comes to making greener choices.  However, the say-do gap often grows wider wherever good intentions mean ditching old habits, stepping out of their comfort zone, or putting the needs of others (or the greater good) ahead of their own.   Some consumers would simply prefer that government or business took the decisions out of their hands and imposed a reasonable measure that they could readily adhere to without too much effort or thought, e.g.: chargeable plastic bags. 

The say-do gap

  • What is the say-do gap?  It’s the difference between what consumers say they’ll do (as an aspiration, a belief) and what they actually do.   
  • What are the implications of a say-do gap?  In attitudinal research a new brand proposition or a topical attribute may yield high purchase intention scores.  At the moment of truth in a realistic purchase situation, what has then become the centrepiece of a brand’s strategy may turn out to actually deter shoppers and cause an unforeseen drop in acquisition. 
  • Why do say-do gaps exist?  A say-do gap is an indication that there are barriers which supersede a single, desirable aspiration, i.e.: other competing needs, and it is by understanding where aspirations and needs rank in a purchase decision hierarchy and how that influences the shopper journey that we learn how to close the gap.

The toy category example

Consider the toy category.  One look at NPD’s data shows that UK toys shoppers are purchasing toy brands which feature recycled and reduced plastic, a commitment to replace natural resources or to use only sustainable materials.  That behavioural data alone cannot tell us whether those same toy purchases were made with a green agenda in mind or by happy accident.   Cause or effect.  Attitudinal trends cannot guarantee that shoppers are acting purposefully either, in favour of eco-friendly purchases.  Every purchase is subject to a series of traded off needs. 

According to Consumer Fluent’s research2, when traded off3 against other considerations, the use of sustainable materials and less plastic was ranked 12th overall on the purchase decision hierarchy, trailing behind criteria such as: durability, longevity, versatility in play, developmental benefits, age appropriateness and whether a toy is on promotion or not. 

19% of UK toy shoppers are what we call “Sustainable Wannabes”.  They make bold claims regarding their intentions but are confused about the environmental claims that brands make, and this prevents them from committing wholly to fulfil their aims.  These shoppers have a diverse repertoire, including toys which contain above average levels of plastic, and they justify such toy purchases as fulfilling their environmental responsibilities because, plastic or not, they are perfectly fit for purpose and durably made, and thus they are not wasteful.  Sustainable Wannabes remind us that trends in attitudes and intentions are not the only marker to use when predicting the rate of growth in actual, purposeful purchasing.

11% of UK toy shoppers are much more motivated and proactive.  We’ve called them “Sustainability Innovators”.  Sustainability Innovators are consumers who adopt innovation before anyone else does, before even, early adopters do.  They’re free thinkers, individualists, idealists, rarely driven to follow trends, most likely to lead them.  They have knowingly made and would make toy purchases in the future based on environmental criteria first, a criteria which is prioritized above most other traded-off considerations and it is this willingness to prioritise sustainability which sets them apart.  They have paid most attention to environmental claims and sought out information to give themselves greater confidence and clarity.  Sustainable Wannabes are influenced by Sustainable Innovators, who in turn will recommend a toy to another parent based on its environmental credentials, including durability for onward circulation, and its fit for purpose, which means it is not a “natural resource wasting gimmick”. 

All goods categories

Consumer Fluent believes that only by looking beyond headline trends and consumer statements of intent, by digging deeper to understand the triggers and barriers they are confronted with in real-life scenarios, and their user experiences and needs, can we begin to close the say-do gap.  Our mission is to develop winning propositions and strategies, designed to deliver higher conversion and a greater return on investment for companies entering into the fray of sustainability.  We help brands to create the steppingstones via which even the most hesitant consumers can cross over into making consistently sustainable purchases, unleashing the potential for eco-friendly innovation to turn into mainstream practice. 

Our research combines insight gathered from consumer perceptions, reported usage, intentions and attitudes (via qualitative and quantitative interviewing), and behavioural data (actual or simulated sales or basket analysis, digital analytics, observation, eye-tracking, sensory testing).  We can identify where, when and amongst who the say-do gap is highest, and, more importantly, what’s driving it (the “why”) and how to close it.   Are simulated concept testing environment and online communities enable us to conduct agile, iterative research to develop solutions and strategies which close the say-do gap, from product innovation to brand propositions, shopper activation to marketing communication.

Get in touch to learn about the work we do across categories.  We are currently looking at ways to grow switching behaviour to eco-friendly alternatives in the personal care category and in bottled drinks.  Our work spans food, beverage, health and beauty, fashion, durables, digital and licensing, and we take the lessons learned through each in their initiatives to “become greener”, across international markets, each with their own trajectory and progress along the innovation curve, from stages of early adoption to maturity. 

Data sources referenced in this article:

Statista, LoopMe, FSA 1

Consumer Fluent Sustainable Brand Research2, UK, Germany 2022

Consumer Fluent conjoint analysis, simulated retail and live retail testing 3