Sustainability Headlines – March 2021: Brands Need to Simplify Sustainability

Published by: Iona Murphy


Our sustainability monitor tracks the attitudes and behaviours of UK adults regarding global warming and sustainable lifestyles. This wave of n=1,086 UK adults in March 2021 compares to both October 2020 and March 2020 (March 2020 fieldwork completed pre-lockdown). Our key findings:

COVID has not derailed a sense of urgency around climate change

Perhaps after facing the realities of a global crisis (one caused by biodiversity loss, no less), people are feeling a sense of gravity around climate change more so than last year.

Now only 1 in 5 (19%) feel climate change is over-hyped by the media, down from 30% last March, while scepticism about the man-made nature of global warming has declined from 28% last year to 22% now. We also see that more people agree that there is a need to take action on the environment now: 80% agree with this, up from 74% in March last year.

The question is, who should take action and how.

The public look to brands to do more

8 in 10 (78%) of adults think major brands need to do more to reduce their environmental impact, a figure that is similarly high across all age groups. This chimes with previous waves of this research that revealed the public perceive brands and government as needing to do more than themselves personally. Among this widespread perception that brands need to be doing more, 4 in 10 adults are actively seeking out sustainable options. There are signs that sustainability is becoming a hygiene factor in purchasing for Gen Z: almost half (46%) of 18-24s have boycotted a brand because of negative social or environmental impacts, while 1 in 4 of all adults have done this.

Brands need to be straightforward to overcome confusion about who is and isn’t sustainable

There is a willingness to live more sustainability but the practical realities of what that means are not clear to the public. 45% of Brits say they would like to live sustainably, but aren’t sure how; a figure that’s even higher in 18-34s (59%).

This sense of confusion is even more pronounced when it comes to thinking specifically about brands: 62% of Brits say it’s difficult to understand which brands are sustainable and which aren’t. With 87 eco labels in the UK alone and a lack of cohesive sustainability reporting standards across industries, that’s not surprising. This presents a challenge for brands who are walking the walk when it comes to sustainability to communicate their credentials clearly.

Over half of Brits (53%) and almost 2 in 3 (63%) of 18-24s are warm to the idea of environmental impact labelling, stating that it would influence what they bought, with some brands already publishing the carbon footprint of their products. Simplified environmental labelling means it will be easier to compare energy efficiency for white goods in the UK.  However some categories like plant-based foods may not find communicating their sustainability credentials so easy.

Twice as many support plant-based foods using the same names as their animal-based equivalents than oppose this

Across the EU, plant-based foods are unable to use the same terminology as dairy or meat equivalents (e.g. “milk” or “cheese”), while the recently proposed amendment 171 could limit the ability of plant-based products to make environmental comparisons to animal equivalents (e.g. margarine has half the co2 of butter). However our polling found that twice as many people support plant-based products using the same names as animal equivalents (e.g. “veggie sausage, oat milk”), than oppose it: 52% agreed vs. only 21% who disagree. Support is considerably higher in 18-34s (59%) and Londoners (59%) compared to older generations (55+, 43%). Similarly divisive is the appeal of new plant-based ranges: 1 in 3 adults say they feel excited when they see new plant-based ranges in supermarkets, however another 1 in 3 actively disagree.

Next steps for brands

This wave’s findings highlight that climate change and sustainability is still very much on the agenda for the UK public, but there is widespread confusion about what ‘sustainability’ really means – so people struggle to differentiate between brands based on this. With increased media coverage of sustainability in the run-up to COP26 later this year, now is the time for brands taking sustainability seriously to consider how to communicate to their customers clearly.

RED C have a wealth in experience in sustainable product innovation, comms and advertising testing across both qual and quant to help brands get the message right.

Speak to for more information about our services.

We are happy to arrange a presentation to talk through our sustainability research in more detail.