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INTELLIGENCE: J. Walter Thompson’s Innovation Group launches Sustainability Report

LONDON — Doing less harm is no longer enough. Brands must now focus on regeneration if they are to future proof their businesses building economies that allow the planet to thrive.

In the largest study of its kind into consumer behaviours and attitudes towards environmental, economic and social sustainability, it has been found that the sustainable mindset has gone fully mainstream. 92% of respondents across 4 markets – China, Australia, the U.S. and the U,K. – are trying to live more sustainably, with the majority leaning towards significant lifestyle choices to support their sustainable ethics:

  • 79% say they find caring for the environment to be a quality they look for in a partner
  • 54% say they would switch to alternative proteins (insect protein, algae etc.) if it were proven to be sustainable/beneficial for the planet
  • 62% of our respondents in all countries said that they would have a smaller family if it was proven to be beneficial for the planet

Sustainability has become a standard imperative for brands, as values-driven consumers demand options that don’t harm the planet and its people. 92% of respondents put companies at the centre of the sustainability debate and believe that sustainability should be standard business practice.


Notably, in China, which has seen a spate of food and other product safety scandals, consumers are most likely to see sustainability as a mark of quality itself. In fact, Chinese consumers are most likely to associate the word “quality” with sustainability, where respondents in other countries selected the word “responsible.”    

Consumers are voting with their wallets. The innovative brands that are making material science, energy efficiency and circular business models a key part of their platform and messaging are seeing the rewards:

  • The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a minimum $12 trillion opportunity ( BSDC/UNDP )
  • Unilever’s sustainable brand portfolio grew 46% faster than the rest of the business in 2017
  • Stocks of companies with strong environmental, social and governance standards outperform their peers (Axioma)

However, J. Walter Thompson presents the evidence that sustainability, and doing less harm, is no longer enough. With 86% of consumers saying that companies and brands that continue to deplete finite resources are stealing from the future:

  • 2000+ cities globally exceed pollution recommendations
  • By 2050 we will need the resources of three earths to sustain us if population growth continues on its current trajectory.

The report, which will be presented to the agency network’s clients offers recommendations and case studies to adopt regenerative business practices.

European Director, J. Walter Thompson ‘The Innovation Group’, Marie Stafford says “This report explores the future of sustainability. It’s a complex, nebulous and often paradoxical concept. Even its definition seems vague and elusive. What was once seen as a burden or a box-ticking exercise is now a major opportunity for innovation and even revenue. However, the future of sustainability, and for brands, lies in regeneration: seeking to restore and replenish what we have lost, to build economies and communities that thrive, and that allow the planet to thrive too”.


In addition to extensive desk research and more than 30 interviews with experts, Innovation Group conducted a quantitative survey using SONAR™, J. Walter Thompson’s proprietary online tool. In June 2018, we surveyed 2,001 adults in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and China. The group also recontacted a subsection of this sample in August 2018 to gain further insight.

They care about the state of the planet …

89% care personally about protecting the planet

… and they feel responsible

79% are increasingly conscious of their personal impact on the planet

They are trying to be more sustainable …

92% claim to be trying to live more sustainably

… but there is always room for improvement

54% think they could probably do more

They accept their duty of care for the next generation …

57% know it’s important to preserve the planet for future generations

… and think brands should too

86% think that companies/brands that continue to deplete finite resources are stealing from the future

They want to choose sustainable products …

83% would always pick the brand which had a better record of sustainability

… but they don’t know which ones are actually sustainable

86% believe there’s not enough information on products for consumers to assess how sustainable they are

They are not opposed to paying more for sustainability …

70% would be willing to pay more for products and services if they protect the environment or don’t infringe on human rights

… but they’re not happy about it either

77% say they should not have to pay more for sustainable products and services

They don’t think sustainable can be luxurious …

58% think sustainable products come across less as luxury and more “hippy”

… but tides could be turning

31% equate sustainable with quality


They think that companies need to take responsibility …

90% feel that companies/brands have a responsibility to take care of the planet and its people

… otherwise there should be consequences

91% think companies/brands that pollute the environment should be fined

The full report is available to download here:

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