Challenging consumer decisions on sustainability

12 September 2017

Confused shoppper

If you’ve not been paying attention over the last three decades, you’d think that the consumer was in control of the economy.

Whenever restrictions on certain harmful types of products have been proposed, the mantra has been that consumers must be offered choice. When customers choose in large numbers to consume more sustainably, then things will change. Until then, all retailers can do is to offer as much choice as possible or else those same fickle consumers will transfer to the ones that do.

We now know that the commonly held view – that more choice equals more freedom and a better outcome for consumers isn’t the case.

Bad news for some. Like Starbucks, who claimed in 2012 to offer 187,000 unique combinations of drinks.

As it happens, too much choice stresses consumers out. And it’s not just that it’s harder to choose – and therefore that more sustainable choices get lost in all the noise. They actually buy less often when they have too much choice in front of them.

Tesco used to be the biggest supporter of consumer choice. If there was a sustainability product issue, it would look towards labelling to offer consumers information. It was all about letting the customer choose.

Companies have to take responsibility for the nature of the choices they offer

At least, it was until Aldi and Lidl came along and began winning customers in large numbers. In 2014, Tesco carried 90,000 products. Aldi and Lidl offered less than 3,000. For instance, Tesco used to sell 28 tomato ketchups. Aldi just one.

Early in 2015, Tesco boss Dave Lewis clearly saw which way the wind was blowing. He scrapped 30,000 products – a full third of the total.

One instructive study tested displays of premium jams at a gourmet food store. The first display had just six different jams. The other had 24. In theory, the one with more jams should sell more, since it offered more options to suit every taste.

In fact, ten times more people bought jam when they saw the smaller display than did when they saw the larger one. That’s a pretty significant difference. And even though not all similar studies have such a straightforward result, we have already seen in practice that less choice works. Indeed, the beginning of Apple’s turnaround was when Steve Jobs rejoined the company and abolished most of the different products leaving four consumer computers. 1 premium & 1 entry level computer. 1 premium & 1 entry level laptop.

Consequently, businesses are beginning to recognise that they have a much bigger part in shaping consumer choices, not just reflecting them.

And that, of course, then brings the whole sustainability element into sharp focus.

In spite of decades of information, marketing, campaigning and a lot more besides, the size of the ethical consumer niche has remained stubbornly niche-sized. Where certain ethical choices became mainstream, it was because brands made them so (Cadbury making its main Dairy Milk products Fairtrade was one example).

So now companies have to take responsibility for the nature of the choices they offer. If, rather than 200 choices, they are offering three – it is down to them to define what is the basis for the selection. Is it a more sustainable premium product versus an unsustainable and unhealthy cheaper one? Or is it a sustainable premium product versus an equally sustainable cheaper one? 

Because sooner or later if we, as a global society, are to achieve sustainability with more than 9 billion people in the world, it will surely be because unsustainable products are no longer seen as valid choices to offer. 

The Sustainable Development Commission put it best when they talked about the phenomenon of ‘choice editing’ more than ten years ago. “. .when people act as shoppers, they expect some issues to have been dealt with. They may not be aware that government and retailers are delegating to them much of the responsibility of choosing society’s way out of unsustainability.”

Nobody, after all, complains today about the absence of lead in paint on children’s toys or – indeed – in petrol. It turns out that doing material damage to people and planet was never a feature that people actually wanted in the things they consume.

 

The issues in this blog will be one of the topics of discussion at the edie Responsible Retail Conference. Readers of this blog can get a 20% discount for attendance by using the promo code MB20

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