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Consumer Research


Green Consumer, Green Citizen?

Green Consumer, Green Citizen?

By Andrew Curry, Gemma Stevenson and Rachel Goodacre

The notion of green consumerism, an invention of the late 1980s, has made huge strides in the last two decades. If the aspiration towards an ethical and sustainable life was once regarded as the preserve of fringe groups, ‘sustainability’ has now entered the mainstream discourse.

Based on new research from Henley Centre HeadlightVision, government and business can no longer afford to ignore growing consumer engagement with these issues, nor indeed the opportunities this presents.

There is momentum to this rising tide of ethical and environmental conscience. Approximately six out of ten British adults (62%) agree that they have become more environmentally aware over the last twelve months.

If attitudes are compared between 2005 and 2007, the evolution of concern is even more striking: in 2005, 66% felt reducing packaging on the products they bought was important to them, increasing to 86% in 2007.

Likewise, 73% felt buying local products was important to them two years ago, whereas 82% now express that view. From a social research perspective, these are big shifts in attitudes, and big numbers.

Along with these changing attitudes, there are signs of tougher views about those who are thought to be environmentally irresponsible. 60% agree that people who do not recycle should be penalised, while more than half believe that four wheel drive vehicles should be banned in urban areas.


But when it comes to making personal sacrifices, the story is rather different: only a quarter feel guilty taking short-haul flights or using their car when they could be taking public transport, and just 27% say they are prepared to pay road pricing charges.


But one of the reasons for this is the high level of consensus that business is to blame for environmental damage – and that it is government’s job to tackle it.





This complex range of attitudes has been investigated in detail through HCHLV’s ethical and environmental segmentation of the UK population, which maps segments of consumers along a spectrum of environmental and ethical engagement.

We have provided a brief overview of how the segmentation applies to the UK population:

  • Vocal Activists: 4 per cent
  • Principled Pioneers: 4 per cent
  • Positive Choosers: 31 per cent
  • Conveniently Conscious: 35 per cent
  • Onlookers: 26 per cent

At the disengaged end of the spectrum, over a quarter of UK adults are ‘Onlookers’ – those who are the least engaged and have a limited level of concern about ethical and environmental issues

Moving along the spectrum, the ‘Conveniently Conscious’ make up over a third of UK adults. This group is aware of and fairly concerned about ethical and environmental issues.

They will take easier steps such as reducing their water use, but are not interested in more involved ethical consumption or local issues.

The ‘Positive Choosers’ are highly aware of ethical and environmental issues and feel guilty about their lifestyle. They regularly buy from ethically sound companies and will boycott those they feel are not acting responsibly.

However, they will rarely complain actively, choosing instead to walk away from companies they disapprove of.

There is a small segment of the population, the ‘Vocal Activists’, who hold similar attitudes to the ‘Positive Choosers’, with the exception that they are much more likely to articulate their discontent.

The most engaged segment is the ‘Principled Pioneers’. These consumers are more prepared to make significant investments of time, energy and money, alongside lifestyle changes, to turn their beliefs into actions.

This includes highly engaged activities such as installing alternative energy sources and calculating their carbon footprints.

This snapshot of attitudes is a useful indicator of what the British public is likely to demand, and to accept, in the name of ethics and sustainability.

For example, a high number of ‘Principled Pioneers’, ‘Vocal Activists’, ‘Positive Choosers’ and ‘Conveniently Conscious’ will be responsive to messages about switching off standby buttons.

When it comes to willingness to use their car less for short journeys, the ‘Onlookers’ and ‘Conveniently Conscious’ are both reluctant to change their habits, and only amongst the 40% of the population in the three most engaged segments would people consider changing their behaviour.

So what are the implications of this for companies?

There are some intriguing conclusions to be drawn:

Companies are most at risk from ‘Positive Choosers’ deciding to stay away from their products – because it’s a big segment and you don’t hear from them about their decisions.

The best clue to their behaviour is in the ‘Vocal Activists’ – effectively a group which has a similar profile to the ‘Positive Choosers’, but also tells you what they think.

‘Choice editing’ – the removal of unethical or unsustainable products from the market by progressive companies or by regulation – plays a crucial role in developing an environmental and ethical consumer culture.

And – at risk of being controversial – there is room in the market for some players to ignore ethical and environmental issues in their positioning, and address the ‘Onlookers’, which is effectively what’s been seen in some parts of the fast food market.

From a public policy perspective, the segmentation suggests that government and agencies have quite a lot of scope to act – provided they pick their issues carefully.

The data explain, for example, why there was so little hostility to the swathe of restrictions on 4x4 vehicles announced earlier this year by councils.

But they also suggest that there will be polarisation between the three most engaged segments and the ‘Onlookers’ – with the ‘Conveniently Conscious’ segment swinging either way depending on the issue and how it is presented or positioned.

The New Green Consumer segmentation was developed by Hildur Hardardottir, Radha Patel, and Rachel Goodacre using data from Henley Centre HeadlightVision's proprietary research tool, Planning for Consumer Change (PCC).

Andrew Curry is a Director of Henley Centre HeadlightVision. Gemma Stevenson is a Consultant. Rachel Goodacre is a Consultant
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