Making Sense of a World of Difference: How Consumers Perceive Sustainability in the US, China, and Beyond

By Alex Murray and Emma Hrustic

Best Global Green Brands is, as its name suggests, a truly global study. The perception survey covers the ten largest economies based on GDP, asking the opinions of more than 10,000 people. This means we cover a wide range of developed and developing economies across the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

In the same way that people refer to the big topic of “global warming,” but what we actually experience is its impact in localized weather changes, after three years of our study we can begin to see the nuances behind global perceptions. Moreover, we can understand the relationship between people, their environment, and brands in different areas of the world.

First, the global view: In all the countries surveyed, more than half of the people questioned say they are concerned about environmental issues. Most of the remainder say they are undecided, and on average less than 1 in 10 say they have no concerns about the environment. It is not just concern that many claim; more than a third of people in most countries claim to be prepared to pay a little extra for environmentally responsible products or services. In some countries this figure reaches well over half of the people asked. Furthermore, around half claim they will not purchase products from companies that have a negative reputation regarding the environment. However, when asked if they always consider the environmental impact of their purchase and lifestyle, those numbers drop significantly.

As we know from other research and our own experience, there is often a significant disconnect between what people say based on their best intentions and what they do when faced with the pressures of daily life.

This is most readily demonstrated when we ask about the importance of a wide range of corporate citizenship activities, from treating stakeholders fairly to addressing environmental issues. In the abstract, respondents generally disagree with the idea that companies should act with only their own interests in mind. However, when we ask the same question to those currently working, or those actively looking for work, priorities subtly shift. We see increased importance placed on a company acting with its own interests in mind. This is something that holds true across all markets, both developed and developing.

Such findings do not mean people are negating the idea of corporate citizenship; merely that corporate citizenship needs to be framed in the context of enlightened self-interest. A corporation or brand does not exist in the abstract. It lives in communities, in relationships, and in the environment. Without meaningful links to these, a brand will ultimately fail. Our definition of brand is careful to capture this sentiment—we talk of a brand as being “a living business asset”—with its implication that what is living now may also die.

This understanding of a brand as existing within a network of relationships is the key to unlocking the value in our perception data. The global scores and averages only tell us so much. It is the ability to drill down and see what activities people expect in different regions and for different categories that sets this study apart. It enables us to consider what messages are potentially important in each region. Combined with the performance analysis that can highlight actual strengths, we have the beginnings of a platform for developing actionable proof-points that are locally relevant but managed within a global frame.

For example: In the drinks category, recycling activities (rather than products) carry more weight in many markets. If a beverage maker is interested in improving green perceptions, it might be wiser to focus on adapting their existing distribution system to create differentiated recycling points rather than trying to replicate the success of a flagship green product from another category.

To add a further level of complexity, brand owners need to understand that expectations vary by category and also by country. In Brazil, for example, recycling is a more relevant activity in many categories than launching flagship green products. On the other side of the world in China, the opposite tends to be true, with green products more highly evaluated than recycling activities.

This takes us back to our notion that this is a truly global study, aiming to understand the complexity inherent in the real world. When we look at a high-profile category like automotive, the headline global view is that many brands on our list see strong perceptions. This makes sense given the presence of powerful flagship green product or technology brands and their intersection with customer concerns over fuel efficiency. However, it masks a major sub-story, the weakness of the category as a whole in China. Despite strong global perceptions, automotive companies have some of the weakest perceptions of any of the brands tested in China. While this stands to reason given the country’s current concerns with air quality, it is a potential cause for concern as most automakers look to China to drive growth.

With a methodology that harnesses our expertise creating and managing brand value across the globe, this study offers a great opportunity to unlock actionable insight into brands and their relationship with the planet we live on.