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December 17, 2004
UNEP Report Takes First Steps Toward Understanding Slow Consumer Uptake of Sustainability
    by William Baue

While advancing interesting findings, the report is marred by lack of adequate documentation.

What motivates the uptake of sustainability, and what sustains this motivation? These are the questions posed in a recent report by London-based MPG International as part of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) program sponsored by the World Association of Opinion and Marketing Research Professionals (ESOMAR). While the motivations for corporate adoption of sustainability are relatively well developed and understood, it is consumers who drive business, and consumer motivation to embrace sustainability is much less well developed and understood.

The report, entitled Sustainable Motivation: Attitudinal and Behavioral Drivers for Action, represents a tentative first step toward attaining a better understanding. This better understanding could improve the corporate marketing of sustainability, which is no easy task given the complexity of the topic.

As with most maiden voyages, the report may take a few wrong turns, but its findings are interesting nonetheless because it traverses relatively uncharted territory.

What is interesting about the report is its identification of trends that may be inhibiting consumer acceptance of sustainability. Perhaps the most interesting findings revolve around methodologies for polling and surveying attitudes around environmental sustainability. The report points out how survey and poll administrators often present biased questions that skew answers toward desired results. A graph compares language from a Gallup poll to a survey by Louis Harris & Associates:

"Contamination of soil and water by toxic waste," the former states; "dangerous chemicals are being dumped by industry without taking safety precautions to protect people from being poisoned," the latter states.

"Not surprisingly, much higher levels of concern were determined from the Louis Harris survey with its implied criticisms than the more neutral tone of the Gallup survey," the report notes.

Consumers are not blind to this kind of information manipulation, which erodes their trust in findings on the urgency of sustainability.

Another of the report's interesting points: much corporate communication on sustainability, particularly through corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, is accessed only by stakeholders such as nongovernmental organizations and investors but not by consumers.

However, this point exposes one of the report's many weaknesses. After asking, "How many customers are actually aware that companies publish environmental or sustainability reports," the report states "Precious few I suspect." Individual speculation carries much less weight than comprehensive research, which is what one expects from such a report. The report author, who remains unidentified, goes on to cite a single study as support for this conjecture.

Actually, "cite" is an exceedingly generous way to characterize the report's method of providing information about its sources. "Mention" would be a far more accurate descriptor, as the report contains nary a footnote much less a bibliography, making it extremely difficult if not impossible to verify the information contained in the report, thereby hampering its credibility.

Indeed, by way of explaining its methodology, the report says that "almost 1,000 people have been contacted in 600 organizations in 50 countries so far." Who these people are and what organizations they represent remains a mystery, as none are quoted and no list of contacts (not even a sampling) is provided.

According to the anonymous author, this report documents phase one of a three-phase project for UNEP. Now that the current status of attitudes and motivations for adopting sustainability has been canvassed, the next phases comprise classifying attitudes into measurable parameters and undertaking original research to benchmark and compare these attitudes worldwide. The researchers would do everyone a service by prioritizing more rigorous documentation in the next research phases and in future reports.


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