Sustainability and Society: The State of the Nation

By Camilla Yates, Strategy Director, elvis

How does the nation feel about the big issues that affect people and the planet? We run a series of ongoing tracking questions to enable us to better understand the UK’s attitudes to these issues, and their expectations of brands in this context. We speak to at least 500 adults per survey and ensure a nationally representative spread of ages.

By understanding the issues the UK is concerned about and monitoring their change over time, we’re able to paint a picture of the ‘state of the nation’ when it comes to sustainability and society – which in turn helps us identify how brands should be responding.

Mental health issues top the UK’s current list of concerns, and this has been the primary issue for the panel of respondents since 2020. Pollution and waste have been in a consistent second position, and climate change has slipped from third to fourth position over the past two years. Our most recent data dip (from September 2023) shows that poverty is now the third most concerning issue for the UK. The mixture of ‘people’ and ‘planet’ issues that are most likely to be top-of-mind shows the holistic spectrum of concerns that people have within the UK today. Water conservation and biodiversity appear at the very bottom of the list, suggesting that consumers have a relatively narrow view of sustainability issues, being much more likely to focus their attention on climate change.

Creative is most effective when audiences see themselves reflected in it, so being cognizant of these key concerns when planning creative will drive impact by building relevance. Brands might consider the role they play in facilitating kindness or community, or deepening relationships in order to be relevant to the nation’s mental health concerns, and initiatives which shine a light on efforts to reduce pollution or waste are likely to appeal to consumers’ more rational sides.

When asked which of the same list of issues people expect brands to take action on, climate change tops the list. It’s understandable that people want corporations to focus their attention on such a big, complex problem which they are likely to feel relatively powerless to change, as individuals. The second highest was pollution and waste – something that is also second highest on the UK’s overall list of concerns. This suggests that people will resonate strongly with brands that focus their CSR initiatives and marketing in this space. The third most significant issue that people expect brands to take action on is diversity, equity and inclusion. This is interesting, as DE&I only comes 10th out of 12 issues in terms of people’s concerns overall, suggesting it’s less personally important than other topics, and may be more of a hygiene factor in terms of brand expectations.

Understanding which issues people think has the most negative impact on the environment enables us to assess levels of awareness and education within this space. Single use plastic is consistently seen to have the most negative impact, and this has remained the case since 2020. Air travel has moved from fifth place up to second in the past two years, demonstrating increasing levels of education when it comes to the severity of impact of this environmentally damaging mode of transport. Other issues with a highly negative perception include food waste and failing to recycle. Campaigns and creative that give consumers easy and appealing ways to avoid these things will enable brands to build equity, by empowering people to make positive choices that make them feel like they’re making a difference to the things they care about most.

In terms of representing positive behaviours, consumers are most likely to expect brands to communicate waste reduction or recycling, followed by sustainable consumption, and then equitable racial and disability representation. Looking at shifts over time, we’ve seen growing expectations around brands representing equitable ages, disability and race. This suggests that the bar is raising increasingly high in terms of how audiences expect authentic, intersectional characters to be reflected within brand communications. In order to activate responsibly in this space, brands and agencies should engage with cultural consultants or other experts with lived experience within the dimensions of diversity that need to be represented more equitably. This will give creative a better chance of achieving relevance with a diverse audience.

Keeping track of how willing people are to spend on purpose-driven brands enables us to assess ‘purpose’ in the context of other macro factors, such as the cost-of-living crisis. Encouragingly, the amount of people saying they would not choose a purpose-driven brand has been falling consistently. Generally, people still claim to be willing to spend a bit more on purpose-led brands, and they’re willing to forgo a bit of convenience for them. But interestingly, while the amount of people willing to spend more is growing, the amount willing to forgo convenience is falling. This, again, is likely to point to consumers’ increasingly high expectations of brands. Purpose should not come at the expense of convenience, and as purpose-driven offerings become increasingly high-quality, consumer expectations will continue to rise. From a creative perspective, this means that the ‘why’ of a product or brand needs to be underpinned by excellence in terms of the product experience, and both purpose and product need to be marketed in comms.

When we look at what influences people’s desire to be more environmentally friendly or socially responsible, news articles are more influential than the actions or opinions of friends – this suggests that the complexity of the issue requires the detail people can find from expert sources, and this is more of a significant influence than the popularly accepted idea of ‘peer pressure’. Government is the least prevalent influence, and the consistent highest driver by far is children or the health of future generations. This suggests that even in our fast paced, individualistic world, people retain an encouragingly long-term, altruistic view. Advertising creative is often highly short-termist, driven by brief activation periods and quick turnover in marketing teams. Taking a longer-term view on a brand’s value could create a paradigm shift towards creative that is distinctive in the scope of its horizon, building relevance and sustainability for tomorrow as well as today.