With the exception of government, no other group is perceived to wield as much influence over carbon emissions as business and industry. The majority of consumers think industry has the requisite influence to combat climate change, in stark contrast to a much smaller minority who believe the same is true of individual consumers.
There is little doubt that concern about the environment is rising among consumers, as are their expectations of business. The environment is seen as the top (and growing) priority for business to address in the next few years, ahead of caring for employees, providing more jobs and keeping prices reasonable.
The environment is also seen as a priority issue for the mobile telecoms sector – it is the top issue that people would like to see mobile companies contribute to, ahead of social and community issues such as crime prevention, health and education. The public tends to raise handset recycling and the environmental (and visual) impact of mast siting as particularly important for this sector. But the public is less familiar with other concerns raised by NGOs and experts, such as the environmental impact of handset production, the high levels of handset turnover among consumers and the carbon emissions produced during the lifecycle of the product – up and down the supply, consumption and disposal chain. While these issues are currently low on the consumer agenda, they could gain traction if the high profile climate change debate prompts a more searching media spotlight to target the industry.
Of course, concern and market demand are not necessarily the same – it is actually quite easy for consumers to profess concern without translating this into meaningful action. Nonetheless, the evidence is that the ‘green’ market – hitherto small and exclusively niche – is expanding. Now, around one in four (28 per cent) strongly agree that more information on social, environmental and ethical behaviour would influence their decisions about what they buy. The emphasis on the word ‘strongly’ is important in terms of the probability they will follow through on their convictions and actively seek out, or avoid, certain products and companies.
In addition to assessing how this trend might affect purchase behaviour in the mobile telecoms market, companies also need to consider how their green initiatives will influence their wider reputation. While only a relative minority are seeking out green choices proactively, a much larger group could be more receptive to brands which they know are committed to the environment. There is certainly an opportunity for companies such as mobile operators to use their influence and proactively encourage their customers (and indeed their employees) to lessen their environmental impacts.
If this is the situation now, what prospects for the green market moving forward? A key barrier to further growth is uncertainty among consumers as they suffer a bombardment of environmental claims. Is offsetting OK? What does carbon neutral really mean? How should people view a mobile operator which claims to be carbon neutral? The current confusion is clear – three-quarters say it is difficult to differentiate products that are better for the environment, while a similar proportion say companies need to make sustainable choices easier.
So how are companies perceived to be performing? The public are receptive but cautious about companies’ claims, and they are alert for any contradictory messages which suggest the company is not living up to a ‘greenwashed’ image. Top-of-mind awareness of company activities in the area of corporate responsibility remains relatively low and many schemes have so far failed to gain any significant cut-through. As yet, there tends to be little differentiation in the public mind between the different mobile operators on responsibility issues.
The public also feel that many companies still have a way to go on the environment. Only 14 per cent of consumers feel mobile phone operators are meeting their climate change responsibilities, just ahead of views of industry in general. Even for supermarkets, the sector that consumers are most familiar with on responsibility issues, only around one in three (36 per cent) consider they are meeting their responsibilities on climate change.
So there is burgeoning consumer appetite for green choices, sometimes for specific products, sometimes just for reassurance that companies are doing something on issues like climate change. Certainty, clarity and consumer confidence are the keys to unlocking future demand, and consumers need to see that companies are in this for the long haul. The challenge for companies such as mobile operators is to cut through the noise surrounding climate change and find a way to effectively communicate their activities. They need to demonstrate that they are showing genuine leadership on the issue, above and beyond consumers’ default assumption that green initiatives amount to little more than spin. Consumers are unlikely to begrudge companies tapping into the green market in order to improve their bottom line, just so long as they do really help ‘save the planet’ at the same time.
Phil Downing, Head of Environmental Research, Ipsos MORI and Jenny Dawkins, Head of Corporate Responsibility Research, Ipsos MORI