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Sustainability - what does it actually mean to consumers?


  • Consumers have low awareness of what is meant by the term ‘sustainability’ and of the government’s climate change targets.

  • As a result of this limited knowledge, consumers are not taking action on the scale needed to make headway towards achieving the net zero goal in 2050. 

  • Consumers are willing to make changes and act more sustainably, but they are unclear on how to do this. Governments and businesses need to do more to make it easier for consumers and reduce the barriers to making low carbon choices.


At the end of last year the UK took a global lead on climate change as host of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, providing a real opportunity for meaningful change and policy action. As we move towards the UK’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050, action is needed at all levels including by individual consumers. Therefore it is important to make sustainable change much more visible in consumers’ everyday lives, in their food consumption, the goods and services they buy, travel decisions and heating choices. But to succeed in this, we first need to understand how consumers see sustainability, and any barriers which may block progress.


This article combines a Which? survey into attitudes towards sustainability and insights from our Which? Consumer Insight Panel.

The survey fieldwork was conducted by Yonder on behalf of Which? between 30th April - 2nd May 2021. A sample of 3,619 was made up of 2,000 UK respondents with boosts to achieve c.500 respondents for each devolved nation. Fieldwork was carried out online by Yonder and data have been weighted to be representative of each nation’s population by age, gender, social grade (aged 18+); and then weighted by region.

We also conducted in-depth interviews in September/October 2021 as part of our Which? Consumer Insight Panel, gathering qualitative insights on topics such as sustainability. Our sample is made up of  36 members who were recruited to reflect a wide cross section of UK consumers.

Consumers are trying to act sustainably

Consumers are starting to act more sustainably, with 87% of consumers reporting that they take at least one action to reduce their environmental impact.  As seen in the chart below, recycling and using products in more efficient ways are the most common actions taken. This suggests consumers are willing to take steps towards more sustainable ways of living, however there are concerns that these most common actions aren’t the things that will make the biggest difference to the planet. 

But they struggle to take the most important steps

Our research suggests a misalignment between consumer understanding of the actions that will be most effective to support the environment, and scientific understanding of the most important steps. While scientists emphasise decarbonising heating and transport, consumers identified actions such as using less plastic (38%), where and how often we fly (26%) and recycling (26%) as the most impactful actions to reduce our impact on the environment.

Two possible reasons for the inconsistencies between consumer actions and those which are the most impactful include external influences and complexity. 

Firstly, consumer knowledge is often driven by the media. Issues which have received intense media attention, such as plastics and recycling, are typically seen as having a far greater environmental impact than they actually do - as seen in chart above. In contrast, issues which have a greater negative environmental impact, such as transport and home heating choices aren’t seen by consumers as the most impactful.This lack of awareness may have a real impact on the actions consumers take - members of our panel expressed the challenges they face in trying to make more sustainable choices: 

Secondly, consumers are naturally taking actions or making changes which are easy and simple for them, and are more reluctant to make the changes that are less attractive and more expensive, for example changing to a more sustainable method of heating. Our research shows that even in those who do describe themselves as being pro-environment, the actions which they take are typically those that fit into their existing lifestyle. Whilst this reluctance may be because actions such as changing diets, mode of transport and home heating systems are harder for consumers to do - they may also cost them more time or money or disrupt their current lifestyles.  

Within our Longitudinal Qualitative Panel we found that for some consumers, there was a balance between making impactful change and affordability. 

Consumer understanding of sustainability is limited

Alongside the lack of understanding of what actions are the most sustainable and the tendency for consumers to make changes which are easier for them, our research has shown this is often accompanied by low awareness of government targets and actions. For example, awareness of the UK governments’ target to reach net zero by 2050 is relatively low. Whilst three fifths (58%) of people know something about it, one in five (17%) consumers had not heard about net zero before participating in our research. 

Together, this research has shown that most consumers are willing to act sustainably and make those changes  - but there are factors which are stopping them maximising their impact. Consumers want more support, direction and help - particularly from the government and businesses - with regards to where to start on this complex issue.


Half of consumers (46%) think the UK Government is doing too little to support consumers to make more sustainable choices. Private and third sector organisations are seen in a similar light, with only consumer groups perceived by a majority (53%) as doing the right amount when it comes to the environment.


Consumers need governments and businesses to do more to make it easier for consumers and reduce the barriers to making low carbon choices to help us meet our ambitious net zero targets.

Contact us

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please email Paige Johns at consumerinsight@which.co.uk

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