The myth of the ethical consumer

Media Bounty’s ‘Beyond the climate bubble’ research shows that although the majority of consumers believe in climate change they are yet to buy sustainable products.

Florencia Lujani and Harriet Kingaby

Strategy Director and Insights Director/Co-Founder of the Conscious Advertising Network Media Bounty


Our latest research ‘Beyond the climate bubble’ focuses on the majority of consumers that, while believing in climate change, are yet to make the step to buying sustainable products.

Far too often, brands fall into the trap of targeting the low hanging fruit – the already engaged ‘ethical consumer’. However, this research, which we conducted over three months in three different regions of the UK, shows the growth opportunity that comes from targeting everyone else.

As an industry, we want to believe in 'ethical consumers'. They represent an idealisation of consumers, role models who always make the right choices in the marketplace, never compromise in their values, and see their consumption power as political power. When we dream about them, we imagine them avoiding or rejecting brands that do not share their same values, and with a strong motivation to reduce their carbon emissions with smart, rational consumption choices. But this is not the reality.

Research has shown that when it comes to purchase decisions, other factors like price, familiarity with the brand, and reliability take priority before environmental or social impact. We discovered the same with our report – but with it, an underlying support or interest in adopting new consumption habits that are better for the environment.

That’s why we’ve translated our research into 10 insight-led strategies for sustainable brands looking to grow market share - 5 of which you’ll find below. We hope this helps ethical brands to steal market share from their polluting competitors, by reaching the big majority of consumers. Those who might want to embrace a lifestyle that is a little bit more sustainable, but have never done so - because they’ve never been the main target audience.

When talking to your customers, balance emotional connection and hard evidence

Florencia Lujani and Harriet Kingaby


1.Normalise new choices

Far too often, sustainable brands fall into the trap of using activist language, codes and symbols, in an attempt to connect with so called “ethical consumers”.

Want to engage the Persuadables? Don’t make buying from your brand a radical act.

These consumers are heavily influenced by social norms – unwritten rules that dictate the way they behave, identify – and shop. For example, a sceptical interviewee told us “If solar is good, why does no-one I know have it?”  Man, 50s, Birmingham

These norms provide a sense of identity and security. Stepping away from the ‘way things are done’ can challenge consumers’ conceptions about who they are. It’s a lot of hoops to jump through to get from shelf to trolley.

To engage these consumers, create a vision of your product that seamlessly aligns with these groups’ idea of ‘normal’. Show people that look and behave like them engaging with your brand, and spotlight opportunities that are personal and tangible.

2.Lead with a strong, personal benefit

You’re likely proud of your ethical products – and you should be.

But when it comes to the Persuadables, putting your shiny ethical creds front and centre might actively harm your bottom line.

People are far more likely to make purchasing decisions based on personal benefit – be that price, reliability, or social capital. Sustainability is a nice to have, not a deal breaker.

In some cases, leading with ethics can actively make consumers feel their free will is being threatened – especially when it comes to politicised topics like veganism. In response to talking about ‘environmentalists’ on TV, an interviewee told us “I’m not giving up my meat!” Woman, 50S, NEWCASTLE

So steer clear of the sustainability-led sales pitch and lead with personal benefit.

3.Sell to men too

There’s an unfortunate misalignment between masculinity and sustainability. Somewhere along the line, sustainable brands stared to be targeted almost exclusively to women.

Senior researcher on sustainability communications Angela Franz-Balsen said “If we look at campaigning and social marketing for the environment, the feminisation of environmental responsibility was typical (since) the early 1990s” 

Campaigns for sustainable products usually contain traditionally female signifiers, for example, using emotive language about ‘care’ and associations with nature.

But advertising has the power to create a version of masculinity where it’s macho to give a damn about overfishing - and not just because a fishless ocean will leave an unfortunate gap on your tinder profile.

Challenge climate-toxic gender stereotypes in your campaigns by incorporating masculine codes and signals, or de-gendering your language completely. Consider brand partnerships and work with trusted messengers to engage these new audiences.

4.Funny or die (literally)

Getting serious about your climate marcomms doesn’t mean you have to be serious. Far too often, ethically-led campaigns are notoriously jargon heavy, often depressing and, well, dry.

Climate doomerism makes these groups feel powerless. It’s uninspiring, and can create negative associations with your products. A woman we interviewed said “It’s hard to be positive about the future so I don’t expect anything.” Woman, 30s, Birmingham

But while climate change may be a serious issue, your marketing doesn't have to be.

Humour is a powerful tool for overcoming the doom and gloom. It provides an opportunity to in an often-dry product category, reframe an issue and create strong (positive) emotional associations.

Embrace memes, pop culture, and a little tongue-in cheek to bring people with you - you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

5.Match your claims with a concrete plan

We love to think that our sustainable products are better for the environment, but when it comes to green claims, we’ve all got a bit of a trust issue. Many brands have tried to greenwash their way into consumers’ good favour with bogus environmental claims or eco-narratives of a hopeful future they’re in no way creating.

What and who are we meant to believe? One of the Persuadables we interviewed said “It all feels like a sales pitch, empty words on a page. I need something to back it up, then it’s common sense, and you spread it like that.” Man, 40s, Yorkshire

Persuadables are too cynical for hope or ‘buzzwords’ alone, so be sure to back up big messages of hope with concrete actions, explained in plain language.

Create closer collabs between marketing, finance, investor relations, and your sustainability and governance teams to achieve ESG-related marketing goals and merge sustainability with your mainstream activities.

When talking to your customers, balance emotional connection and hard evidence that change is happening, everyone’s doing it, and people like them are making those changes too.

In particular, consider how the change you’re asking for can help people in a cost-of-living crisis.

The myth of the ethical consumer is just that- a myth. It promises brands a hyper-engaged market of deep-pocketed consumers, who prioritise ethics above all else. And while some brands might have found success in chasing these tales, today's climate – both commercial and environmental – demands a switch in strategy.

Our research was driven by a desire to find a new way forward for brands doing the right thing. One built on fact, not fairytale. As passionate advocates of business as a force for good, we’re excited to see this research head out into the world and drive real change.

On the 8th of March, Strategy Director Florencia Lujani and Insights Director Harriet Kingaby will be further unpacking the impact of this research for brands with Seb Munden (Chair of Ad Net 0) and Sean Boyle (Former Head of Sustainability at Twitter). Sign up here.

Guest Author

Florencia Lujani and Harriet Kingaby

Strategy Director and Insights Director/Co-Founder of the Conscious Advertising Network Media Bounty


Florencia Lujani is a Strategy Director with a love for impactful creativity driven by smart strategic thinking. She works with brands and the climate sector developing strategies that help shift the world to a sustainable economy, using her expertise in brand strategy, creative planning and ideation, insights and cultural analysis. A former Mozilla fellow, Harriet delivers insight-driven strategy for challenger brands with purpose. Alongside her work at Media Bounty, Harriet is co-founded the Conscious Advertising Network, a voluntary coalition of 150+ agencies, advertisers and tech providers working embed ethics in modern advertising practices.

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