4 Things You Need to Know About Consumers and Sustainability

In 1996, Jerry Maguire turned his crisis of conscience into a feel good movie, spawning a plethora of quote worthy lines from Jerry and his leading lady, Dorthy. I highly doubt that Cameron Crow was thinking about corporate responsibility and sustainability, but good writing can be appropriated to express a myriad of ideas. Jerry Maguire (unknowingly) personifies the universal tensions between crisis, optimism, and faith that consumers express when talking about sustainability and the tug-a-war between personal and corporate responsibility.

So, we asked Jerry, Dorthy, and thousands of consumers via two studies (Sustainability and Food Retailing and Path to Purpose) to give voice to their attitudes, actions, and beliefs around where corporations should step into the conversation, and this is what they told us.

# 1: In this age, optimism like that is a revolutionary act. – Dorthy

US Consumer sentiments are often deeply divided, but sustainability is a rare trend breaker garnering universal appeal with 7 in 10 consumers working to reduce their impact on the environment. Recycling, limiting food waste, and using reusable bags are consistently among top personal goals across all subgroups including gender, age, ethnicity, income, subregion, neighborhood types, and political affiliation. A focus on these sustainable practices further highlights this unified priority.

#2: We live in a cynical world, a cynical world. – Jerry & You complete me.- Jerry

Our 2020 Path to Purpose (P2P) study revealed a consumer crisis of confidence in business and government leaders to do what is right. This is paired with the belief that collective action is required to solve large-scale problems, such as climate change, and most believe that the responsibility falls on corporate entities.

The CCRRC echoed these sentiments, illustrating that most American consumers believe that food retailers have a responsibility to the communities in which they operate. This responsibility encompasses both the employees and the larger community and comes with the expectation that retailers reflect and protect the community through their food offerings, employees and sustainability efforts. This is an ideal fervently supported by younger consumers.

#3: Help me…..help you.

When it comes to sustainability, consumers are more concerned about their personal impact on the environment than the environmental impact of the retailer. Sustainability in this context is personal and emotional, however, food retailers are where consumers feel they accumulate the bulk of their personal waste. Shopper behavior in food retailers often produces binary outcomes – if they feel their actions lead to a negative impact on the environment there are strong feelings of guilt, whereas positive actions impart an emotional lift.

The role of the retailer in this emotional transaction is to provide consumers with tools to alleviate guilt and promote positive personal behavior. Consumers are highly perceptive to the suggestions that retailers make on this front, the consumer adoption of reusable bags is a prime example illustrating the influence retailers can exert in terms of creating the next positive behavior. It also emphasizes the opportunities retailers (and companies at large) have to further alleviate consumer guilt, such as driving the conversation with manufacturers when it comes to reducing single use plastics within our food chain.

#4: Show me the money

Consumers are willing to reward retailers who are willing to support sustainability practices. Our collaboration with CCRC revealed that consumers are willing to pay an average of 4% more at a food retailer that implements initiatives to support their community and the environment. And even among value conscious consumers, there is a willingness to drive 6-10 additional minutes to shop at a retailer that they believe has a stronger impact on the environment.

Our P2P findings illustrate that consumers spend, on average, 3x more at companies/brands whose success creates a lot of benefit for society, compared to companies that profit at the cost of societal damage.


Corporate led social responsibility, including sustainability, adds value to the bottom line both in terms of consumer spend and loyalty. So, the next time sustainability is on the agenda feel free to let your team know that they “had you at hello.”

Want to learn more about Corporate responsibility and sustainability, check out the two resources included in this article or feel free to give us a call!

In 2020, the Coca Cola Retailing Research Council (CCRRC) commissioned Murphy Research to conduct Sustainability and Food Retailing, a multi-phase research project on sustainability within the food retail industry.

Murphy Research also conducts Path to Purpose, a syndicated study leveraging our proprietary PQ (purpose quotient) score to measure the impact of brand mission and purpose, beyond profit, in consumer perceptions and purchasing.

For more information about consumers and sustainability, email us here at info@murphyresearch.com.