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The consumer study: From marketing to mattering

Read how companies can create greater awareness and trust in consumers around sustainability by using three imperatives.


Consumers have been consistently identified by business leaders as the most important stake-holder in guiding their action on sustainability. However, interpreting the signals from this group is contributing to CEOs’ frustrated ambition at the pace of change in embedding sustainability into the core business and global markets.

Consumers expect more from companies, from greater honesty and transparency to greater impact on global and local challenges and a more responsible stewardship of natural resources and the environment. Yet among business leaders there is a sense that companies have failed to engage the consumer on sustainability; that companies’ reputation and performance on environmental, social and governance issues are not informing consumers’ purchasing decisions; and that industry leaders on sustainable business practices are not being rewarded by the market.

Read this companion report to the world’s largest CEO study on sustainability to date, where 30,000 consumers worldwide give their views on their quality of life, expectations on business and governments, and attitudes towards sustainable brands.


With market factors increasingly driving business approaches to sustainability, an in-depth understanding of consumer views is critical to inspire accelerated progress, and to unlock the full potential of the private sector in addressing these challenges.

Accenture and Havas Media Group’s RE:PURPOSE collaborated to extend the reach of the UN Global Compact CEO Study on Sustainability to encompass the view of consumers worldwide. To this end, they have conducted a study of 30,000 adults across twenty countries to understand:

  • What they expect from business and other institutions.

  • What ‘sustainability’ means to their choices and attitudes.

  • How sustainability issues influence their purchasing decisions.

  • How superior performance on sustainability can better engage consumers, driving value creation and genuine competitive advantage.

The study also points to major issues hampering the credibility and trust advantages that sustainable, responsible practices should offer to forward-thinking companies.

Key Findings

The key survey findings reveal:

  • There is a wide disparity in people’s optimism regarding the expected change in their quality of life. While Western Europe is pessimistic, the outlook in Asia and North America is more positive with the most widespread optimism in Africa and Latin America.

  • Seventy-two percent of people globally say business is failing to take care of the planet and society as a whole. However, in economies with a large, emerging middle-class, people are less skeptical and public confidence is significantly greater: two-thirds of respondents in Nigeria and India, for example, believe that business is playing its part.

  • People think business is as accountable as governments for improving their lives. Whether optimistic (Asia, Africa, and Latin America) or despondent about the future (Western Europe and North American markets) people expect brands and companies to impact positively on their lives. Optimism correlates to the expectations on business to improve their quality of life.


  • Consumer consideration of sustainability factors in their purchasing decisions. Countries where respondents are optimistic, and express high expectations of business, are also more likely to consider sustainability in their purchasing decisions and actively seek information on sustainability performance.

  • Consumers worldwide identify critical challenges—job creation, economic growth, pollution, clean energy, ending corruption etc.—for businesses to address. Consumers (81 percent of respondents) expect more from their expenditure than the acquisition of products and services – and this is affecting their perception that companies are failing (42 percent believe that) to meet their expectations.


High-growth markets will be essential to companies’ future prospects, both for Western businesses and for emerging-market multinationals—and it is clear that consumers in these markets are looking at businesses to fulfill their optimism for the future. People in every part of the world see the act of expenditure and consumption as a means to enhance health and livelihoods, boost community wellbeing, and shift the direction of the world.

People also demand leadership from brands to overcome the most pressing human and planetary challenges—a clear signal that companies cannot wait for consumer demand to drive their actions: people expect business to take the lead.

Brands, however, are failing to connect corporate sustainability efforts to the expectations and priorities of their consumers as traditional ways to communicate sustainability have failed to engage and persuade the consumer.

Marketers increasingly favor an approach that focuses on hard-facts and a wave of data, which clearly does not make any sense to consumers who fail to see a clear integration into the products and services that they consume with the brand's sustainability efforts.

Companies are missing an opportunity to frame sustainability in terms of their positive impact on the health, wealth, and livelihoods of their customers and the communities in which they operate, and demonstrating their real, tangible impact. Moreover, consumers expect more from their expenditures than the acquisition of products and services–and this is affecting their perception that companies are failing to meet their expectations.


Consumers’ call for greater awareness and trust in companies’ impact on sustainability challenges raises three imperatives for companies seeking to engage consumers.

  • Promote a commitment to honesty and transparency. Companies must embed the principles they espouse in marketing and communications throughout their operations: consumers form perceptions based not only on the messages companies promote, but also on the way they define and articulate their purpose, and act upon it in the most transparent way possible.

  • Innovate to improve health, prosperity, and livelihoods. For business, this prompts two important shifts in the innovation process:

  • Aligning product and service innovations to meet the broader needs; and

  • To innovate manufacturing and production processes through circular economy models to improve impacts throughout the value chain.

Circular economy models (that are by design or intention, restorative like renewable energy), for example, can help companies to produce the products demanded by local markets while reducing the impact on natural resources and local communities.

  • Enhance credibility through communicating real, tangible impacts. Companies and brands need to demonstrate why they matter to consumers, and how they make a meaningful difference to their quality of life: awareness and authenticity are important motivators to purchase.

For companies seeking to better engage consumers, and secure a competitive advantage through sustainability, these three shifts can provide the foundation of a deeper connection.