Most consumers can’t name a single brand that’s improving social or environmental outcomes

Rose Mary Petrass

Woman covering her ears

While people care more than ever about environmental and social responsibility, few brands are actually getting their good work across to consumers’ hearts and minds. 

According to a new survey a massive eight out of 10 people believe brands have a responsibility to improve social and environmental issues, and they consider that impact when making a purchase.

But almost the same percentage can’t name a single brand or business that is helping improve social or environmental issues in Australia (three in four respondents).

The report, from Mobium, Republic of Everyone and The Bravery entitled Who Do You Believe? highlights that actions from brands and businesses are failing to match up to Australians’ expectations. Even when they do act, 86 per cent of Australians are sceptical about the social or environmental claims they make.

The report found that 78 per cent of consumers consider a brand’s social and environmental impact when making a purchase, while 56 per cent consider a brand’s sustainability actions when choosing their place of work.

Of all sectors in society, business was found to be the least believed to act with long term social and environmental interests at heart. 

The report surveyed 2040 Australians across all ages and regions to find out “which brands and companies Australians believe are acting to improve these issues that they care about,” explained Republic of Everyone founder Ben Peacock. 

And almost three quarters of respondents couldn’t name any. 

But some brands are cutting through. Of the brands that consumers could name (unprompted), one in five named Woolworths, one in 10 named Coles and one in 20 named Cotton On. Grocery stores were named by almost half of respondents (47 per cent).

“The implications of the report are important regardless of whether you work in sustainability or marketing, because it is showing across both action and also communication [that] Australians don’t believe brands are doing enough despite their strong desire for greater action on social and environmental issues,” Claire Maloney, director and founder of The Bravery said.

What does this mean for businesses? 

While this report is certainly not good news, it does present an opportunity for improvement.

“While the findings show a lack of belief from Australians on impact initiatives, this doesn’t mean that businesses are failing,” Ms Maloney said. 

“There is a growing amount of real and tangible action happening in the market, and when Australians could name a business they felt was cutting through, there was a high level of knowledge and understanding on what they felt good looks like. 

“This should give businesses confidence because as long as you continue to act big and consistently, there should be a positive shift in perception and believability.”

The report identifies a gap in the market that brands would do well to fill. There is a big opportunity for brands to put their money where their mouth is and execute tangible actions on social and environmental issues. 

It shows that when it comes to sustainability, consumers need to see brands “walk” the “talk”. 

On-product and in-store actions with a high level of visibility were found to be the most powerful way for brands to show consumers their positive social and environmental actions. 

The top actions that respondents pointed to were:

  • removing single-use plastic bags (Woolworths)
  • committing to renewable energy (Coles)
  • participating in charity drives (Cotton On)

This shows that marketing is important, but strong actions and commitments need to come first.

Packaging and signage is the most effective way to convince consumers – 43 per cent believe it. But there are other actions that businesses and brands can take. 

Issues that businesses can help solve include:

Important issues for brands

Mr Peacock explained that “access to nature” was considered as a social issue and not an environmental issue because of the equity and health issues that are raised by a lack of access to nature. 

“Nature (and biodiversity) unto itself is an environmental issue, but having access to green space, especially in urban areas, is a social and equity issue. Plenty of research shows that, simply, the further you live away from a useable green space, the more likely you are to be obese and have other physical and mental health challenges.”

What positive steps can businesses take to fix this? 

He said that to counteract these social and environmental issues (and raise brand loyalty and trust as a result), businesses need to “quite simply, do more”.

“The clear message from consumers is that they value action over all else. Consistency creates trust so taking genuine action on social and environmental issues and continuing to do so over time is what makes a leader.”

Here are some positive actions that consumers named in the survey that brands can take to improve in the eyes of consumers: 

  • Remove free plastic, or ban single use plastic totally 
  • Commit to going 100 per cent carbon neutral
  • Converting all stores to solar power
  • Include in-store charity drives and options to donate
  • Offer reusable bags or small items that consumers can purchase with the proceeds going to charity
  • Use responsible packaging (no plastic) 
  • Sell items that would usually go in the bin 
  • Donate food to help feed the needy 
  • Install solar in stores 
  • Switch to recyclable products 
  • Switch to green electricity 
  • Support farmers
  • Include in-store recycling bins to return used items 
  • Switch to the sustainable and ethical version of products 
  • Collaborate with suppliers to minimise the use of water and energy
  • Have transparent supply chains
  • Use ethically sourced materials
  • Offer an incentive for consumers to recycle 
  • Thoughtful customer service 

More data sorely needed: 

The researchers point out that more data is needed in order to drive business decisions towards the right direction in Australia. 

The sustainability impact agencies that conducted the study are two of the longest-running impact agencies in the Australian market (with 10 and 15 years respectively), but Ms Maloney said that while in that time they have increasingly witnessed international research into public perceptions and desires around sustainability and social impact, they have not seen much “specifically about the Australian market”. 

“We know the Australian sustainability and social cause sector is calling out for more relevant data and insights to increase their impact, and this research answers that call.”