Sustainability awareness

October 2015

Do you want to shop without a guilty conscience and ensure that what you consume does not harm people and the environment, but are unsure how to go about it? You might find the ‘sustainable shopping basket’  helpful. It was developed by the German government’s Council for Sustainable Development and provides information and hints on more than one hundred pages about almost everything in life, ranging from resource-sparing renovations to gardening, travel and shopping. The shopping basket is intended to offer help and guidelines. In addition, it is aimed at reaching those who have never or hardly come into contact with the principle of sustainability to date, because more work remains to be done in this area by champions of sustainability. Although the term means something to a large majority in Germany, after continually rising in recent years, the awareness score has not changed for the first time.

85% of Germans have come across the term ‘sustainability’ at some point. A total of 38% indicated that they definitely knew the term. The remaining respondents stated that they were at least familiar with the term.

This means that most people in Germany are aware of the topic of sustainability, while only 15% of the population stated that the concept means nothing to them. These are the findings of a survey carried out in September of this year. Almost 1,000 people were interviewed by GfK Marktforschung, which carried out the survey on behalf of the GfK Verein for the fifth consecutive time. Evidently, information and campaigns to raise awareness have promoted the level of awareness in the population. However, awareness of the concept now seems to have stagnated. The number of people aware of the term rose by almost 10 percentage points in the period from 2012 (77%) to 2014 (86%). Yet, as part of this year’s survey, no further gain in knowledge levels was recorded. No further increase was recorded either in the number of those who stated that they were definitely aware of the term.

Regions and gender – balanced awareness level

Around 1,200 projects and events were presented during the 2015 Deutsche Aktionstage Nachhaltigkeit (German Sustainability Activity Days). In the course of one week, municipalities, private individuals, organizations and companies provided insight into what sustainability means to them. Activities took place across all regions throughout Germany. Regional awareness of the term was evenly distributed. Differences no longer exist in this respect between eastern and western Germany. Both West Germans (84%) and East Germans (86%) are familiar with the concept. The awareness gap between men and women has also almost entirely disappeared, although men continue to appear somewhat more confident in their knowledge than women. The number of men who definitely knew what sustainability means totaled 40% while 47% had at least heard of the term. Among women, 37% said that they definitely knew the term and 46% stated that it was familiar.

Age groups – middle generations have the most knowledge

A glance at the different age groups highlights minor differences, as was also the case in previous years. Initially, awareness levels go slightly up with age before decreasing again. Similar to previous years, the age group ranging from 50 to 64 years, “the children of the environmental movement”, is most familiar with the term “sustainability”. According to respondents’ own statements, 88% had heard the term or definitely knew it. However, the age group of 35 to 49-year-olds match this, with 87% expressing awareness. In addition, this is the age group with the highest percentage of people who are definitely aware of the sustainability concept. The 65+ generation knows least about sustainability, although a considerable 78% in this group have come across the term. At 85%, awareness among the youngest age group in the survey, the 14 to 34-year-olds, was average.

Environmental issues are the primary association

What people who are aware of the principle of sustainability primarily associate with the term has hardly changed compared with the previous year. Once again, they mainly associated the term with environmentally responsible behavior and management. More than one in four stated that this was what they understood by sustainability. A total of 18% associated sustainability with the use of renewable resources and 14% with a long lifespan. Approximately one in ten of those aware of the term linked sustainability to recycling and sparing use of resources. A similar number saw it as an investment in the future, or the principle of considering the consequences of any action. Only 5% of those aware of the term thought of future generations in connection with sustainability. For 4% of respondents, the term signified saving energy or immediately switching to renewable energy such as wind power, solar power and biomass.

Change in meaning over time – environmental responsibility replaces durability

Environmental responsibility has not always been the primary association with the term “sustainability”. In 2012, this ranked in fourth place. At that time, most of those aware of the term associated it with the notion of durability. One in five mentioned this connotation. Now this figure is down, with only 14% associating sustainability with this rather vague term. Today, fewer of those aware of the term mentioned the sparing use of resources and saving energy when asked about their thoughts on sustainability.

On the whole, the understanding of the term “sustainability” in the population has evidently evolved in the direction of environmental awareness. Those wishing to learn how to act environmentally responsibly but who want to avoid reading endless information should take a look at the latest version of the sustainable shopping basket – now available as an app for users on the move. Irrespective of whether users are browsing for sustainable wood flooring in a DIY store or want to ask their bank adviser about sustainable investments, now mobile technology also facilitates sustainable behavior.

Data source: GfK Verein, Study "Nachhaltigkeitseinfrage" (September 2015)

Contact person for queries about Compact: Claudia Gaspar (e-mail to