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Belgium, 27.10.2020

Do Belgians believe in the myth of the green consumer?

On June 6th, Knack published an article titled: The myth of the green consumer: a better environment doesn’t start with yourself. In this article, Jaap Tielbeke notes that consumers are often addressed by organizations to change their behaviors in order to help preserve the environment. Cut back on meat, turn down the heat or swap your car for an e-bike. Although these initiatives might help to reduce your personal ecological footprint or give you a pleasant feeling about yourself, Tielbeke continues to state that the environmental crisis is in fact largely caused by the everyday practices of multinational corporations instead. To illustrate this, he points out the ‘Carbon Majors’-research that got published in The Guardian last year. This research suggests that only 20 fossil fuel companies have been responsible for 35 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions since 1965.

A harsh conclusion. With a loud bang, Tielbeke punctures our bubble and with it the idea that we can make a difference in the race against climate change as an individual consumer. But, do Belgian consumers share this point of view? Do they still believe in making an impact through individual actions or do they hold accountable major organizations for the climate issues in our society? And how does this impact the consumer-brand relationship? In this article, we aim to answer these questions by looking at the (historic) data from GfK’s global Consumer Life trend study.

Environmental values not reflected in consumer behaviors

From the perspective of the Belgian consumer, helping to preserve the environment became more important in the past 5 years as a value and guiding principle in their lives.

However, the increasing valuation of helping the environment is not reflected immediately in the purchase behaviors of the Belgian consumer. For example, only 1 in 3 Belgians said that they take environmental protection into consideration when making purchase decisions. In addition, only 14% reported that they will go out of their way to make sacrifices for the benefit of the planet. This leads to the following question: Why are some consumers not changing their behaviors when they obviously believe that it is important to preserve the environment?

Pressure on brands to go green

One of the reasons why this value-action gap becomes apparent is because consumers hold brands and companies accountable for the environmental crisis rather than themselves. In 2020, 52% of consumers in Belgium agreed that brands and companies must take-up their environmental responsibility. 5 years ago, only 40% of consumers agreed to the same statement. This is putting a great deal of pressure on brands to become ‘green’. Literally green! Just think of McDonald's that changed the color of its logo from red to green.

Actions speak louder than words

So, what does this mean for brands? Can they simply change the color of their logo or come up with an exciting mission statement, saying they are going to save the world? According to GfK’s Consumer Life, the answer to this question is ‘no, it’s not that simple’. Belgian consumers are not that easily impressed. Only 1 in 5 Belgians stated to believe in brand claims or business practices when it comes to the environment. Therefore, superficial changes such as a logo change or a new mission statement won’t do the trick. In order to convince consumers, brands should demonstrate concrete and tangible changes in the way they do business. 77% of all Belgian consumers think it is important that companies take environmentally responsible actions, such as using environmentally friendly materials or ingredients. Instead of throwing fancy words at consumers, a more effective way to get consumers to choose your brand is by displaying the concrete actions that your brand is taking (e.g. using recycled materials).

A greener economy doesn’t start with yourself

To summarize, Belgian consumers seem to agree with Tielbeke: brands and companies are most accountable for our current environmental crisis and, therefore, also more responsible for creating a more sustainable world. In order to meet these consumer expectations, brands need to think about concrete actions they could take to provide attractive and green options to their current products and refrain from big empty promises on sustainability because actions speak louder than words also when it comes to sustainability.

But, can consumers just turn all responsibility towards brands and companies? Big companies might need to take the first step in order to pave the path for consumers to follow. The latter is still not a given since consumers might still look for other excuses to not fundamentally change their own behavior. if these big companies change, there will surely be an impact on products and especially prices. In their turn, consumers will also need to follow immediately, for instance in accepting these higher prices. So, both consumers and companies have a role to play.

About GfK Consumer Life

GfK’s Consumer Life is a global, syndicated trend service providing visibility to cultural changes and disruptive forces so you can harness them for business advantage. It is the largest, longest-standing, and most robust study of its kind in the world. Our Consumer Life reports are available on-demand and give you knowledge about all aspects of people's lives, including their aspirations, personal values, future world outlook and concerns, lifestyle behaviors, hobbies, consumption behaviors, and usage in health, finance, mobility, technology, media, and much, much more. For more information about GfK Consumer Life and our on-demand Consumer Life reports, click here.

Article by Freyia Han.

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