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US shoppers apathetic on sustainability compared to Europeans, research shows

FMCG brands must lead education drive to make sustainability a priority

Most US consumers do not consider sustainability when grocery shopping and are largely apathetic compared to European counterparts, according to an in-depth research report from The Big Picture (, a design research agency based in New York and London.

The ethnographic-based qualitative international research reveals that most North Americans would not select a product with ‘sustainable’ credentials for two key reasons: sustainable products are isolated in separate aisles in US supermarkets, requiring consumers to consciously seek them out, and there is a general lack of knowledge among consumers about the benefits of sustainable production.

The findings will make crucial reading for FMCG companies, in particular giants such as Coca-Cola, Unilever and P&G, who signed up to lead an international, cross company effort to tackle consumer lifestyle issues in 2010, to deliver sustainable consumption by 2050*.

The Big Picture’s expert design researchers carried out a series of in-depth qualitative interviews with consumers in the US, the UK, Italy and Germany. The research focused primarily on the Laundry and Tea/Coffee categories and tested brands including Starbucks, Lipton, and Arm & Hammer.

The research comes as the agency launches its first office in the US - a market that has become crucial for its major FMCG clients, which include GSK, Unilever and Reckitt & Benckiser.

Among those Europeans surveyed, the research showed that consumers in Germany are the most sustainably focused, or ‘ethical-elites.’ The UK ranked second with a combination of ‘ethical-elites’, ‘feel-gooders’- those that buy some sustainable products - and ‘ethical-apathetics’ - those yet to be convinced.

It found that Italians have good awareness, but sustainability is still seen as an emerging trend, rather than an established driver.

Stuart Costley, senior vice president of The Big Picture’s newly opened US offices in New York, says, “In the US, whilst mainstream consumers are beginning to engage with Organic produce, they have little or no desire to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, which is largely due to a lack of direct marketing by government and business to consumers, and the price premium often involved.”

He adds: “Brands clearly need to look at educating consumers on the benefits of choosing sustainable products. There is also a need for recognizable logos that identify sustainable brands, such as the Fair Trade mark in the UK. This is where a coherent partnership approach between brands, industry groups and other interests could make a mark.”

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