Sustainability is familiar

October 2014

Is there such a thing as an environmentally friendly smartphone? How can we create green energy villages from our communities? And what is it that distinguishes a green festival from the usual music events, which some of our readers may have attended this summer? These are just some of the questions that are answered in the online encyclopedia on sustainability run by the Aachener Stiftung Kathy Beys, a foundation which aims to provide clarity regarding sustainable trade. Initiatives such as this are becoming increasingly common and the greater availability of information has evidently improved consumer awareness of sustainability. In Germany, at least, ever more consumers are informing themselves on this topic.

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Whether in connection to politics, the economy, tourism or fashion, sustainability is on everybody’s lips right now. German consumers have increased their awareness in this regard over the past few years. Accordingly, the proportion of German consumers who have not heard or read anything to do with the term sustainability has significantly declined since 2012. While two years ago nearly a quarter of respondents admitted that they had never encountered this concept before, the corresponding figure now stands at just 14%. These are the findings of a current survey of at least 1,000 individuals carried out by GfK Marktforschung on behalf of the GfK Verein for the fourth time in September 2014. In total, the word “sustainability” was familiar to 86% of respondents, half of whom were confident that they knew the term.

Generation gap: middle-aged consumers display highest degree of awareness

The extent of respondents’ knowledge and awareness of sustainability varies according to age: it gradually increases the older they are, but then falls again among the oldest generations. The term is most well-known by the children of the green movement, who today make up the 50 to 64 age group, but grew up at a time of intense anti-nuclear protests and demonstrations demanding increased protection for nature. In this generation, 92% were aware of the concept of sustainability, with one in two completely sure that they knew the term.

The second largest group for sustainability awareness is the 35 to 49 year olds, who registered 88%, followed by the over 65s, of whom 84% were definitely or slightly acquainted with the concept. This represents the first time that the older generations have exceeded the 80% mark for familiarity with the concept of sustainability and, with an increase of 11 percentage points, they have also achieved the most marked increase. However, the youngest respondents were unable to maintain the upward trend in awareness seen over the past few years. Awareness in this generation has even declined slightly to 80%, of whom just one in three were certain of its meaning. In addition, every fifth young adult admitted to not ever having come across the term.

East versus West: near equal degree of awareness

The Nachhaltigkeitszentrum Thüringen (Thuringia sustainability center) has been advising on the subject of resource-saving growth for three years. Consumers in Hesse recently celebrated the third “Sustainability Day” which was marked by many local events throughout the region. Augsburg in Bavaria was named Germany’s most sustainable city in 2013. These are just three examples of all the sustainability-oriented events and projects taking place in Germany. The comprehensive nature of information available has clearly had an effect. As in previous years, there is no clear discernible distinction between regions. This is proven by the fact that 88% of respondents in East Germany and 86% of their Western counterparts were more or less acquainted with the term “sustainability”. In the previous year, respondents in the West had still been marginally ahead.

Battle of the sexes: men are more certain

A direct gender comparison reveals some differences arising in responses. Awareness on sustainable principles has certainly been steadily on the rise since 2012 for both men and women, so that now just 14% assert that they have never come across the concept before. However, a different picture emerges when looking a little more closely at the groups of respondents: 42% of men were quite confident that they have previously encountered the term, compared with just 35% of women. More than half of female respondents affirmed that they have a vague awareness of sustainability, whereas this figure was 44% for men.

Associations: environmental aspects even further ahead

When asking respondents who are acquainted with principles of sustainability what they associate with this concept, it is once again apparent that environmental aspects dominate this year’s survey. Environmentally friendly actions and business practices were specifically mentioned by every fourth respondent. The association with “durability and long service life” (19%) has therefore clearly been fully ousted from the top spot. Further environmental themes follow in the subsequent places: 19% specified the use of renewable raw materials, while a further 15% mentioned saving resources. One in ten respondents associated reusability and recycling, which represents a rise of four percentage points since the last survey. However, another environmental association seems to no longer be at the forefront of consumers’ minds: just 4% of respondents who are acquainted with the principles of sustainability made the association of saving energy and using regenerative energies. This had been 7% in both 2012 and 2013.

Social aspects: once again bringing up the rear

For nearly one in ten respondents, sustainability represents a general commitment to invest in the future and consider the consequences of their own actions. Thinking about future generations was an association made by just 5% of respondents, down from 6% in the previous year. The number of respondents who are definitely aware of the term but who are not exactly certain of what it entails has remained stable: as in 2013, 11% of respondents could not give a concrete answer as to what they would associate with the concept of sustainability. Respondents who indicated familiarity with the term were otherwise unanimous in their interpretations, as becomes apparent from the social-demographic data. Environmental aspects are dominant in the minds of respondents, regardless of age, sex and background, barring one notable exception: retirees ranked durability in first place, an aspect which was far less prominent for other generations. Other aspects were subject to marginal variations as well. Sparing resources and reusing raw materials were more often associated by respondents from the former East German states than those in the West, who more readily associated the consequences of their own actions.

Sustainability “experts”: on the lookout for sustainable products

As we have seen, the term “sustainability” is increasingly featuring in the vocabularies and mindsets of Germans, but has this also had a clear impact on behavior? The answers from “expert” respondents, that is to say those respondents who knew the term and were able to make associations, provide a split picture. To around a third of these respondents, it is very important that products and services are made and provided in a sustainable way. However, 61% were not so certain and were more (41%) or somewhat (20%) of the view that it is important that goods on offer earn the “sustainable” labeling. A mere 4% still believe this subject to be of little or no importance. Female and older “experts” appear to be more sustainably oriented than the average German consumer. In this respect, 38% of women believe that sustainable production of goods is an important issue in comparison with just 33% of men. The percentage of respondents who consider sustainable production to be “very important” also increases with age, rising from 32% in the 35 to 49 age group to 40% for those over the age of retirement.

Thinking about tomorrow, today

Nearly ten years ago, the UNESCO UN Decade Education for Sustainable Development was launched. The scheme’s objective was to include principles of sustainability in global education and therefore anchor this concept in the minds of people around the world. This year sees the decade come to an end, with German delegates returning a largely positive report at a recent conference in Bonn. In Germany, efforts such as these have made their mark and paved the way for German consumers to act more consciously. This means that products and services which compromise the wellbeing of future generations should not be on offer, something which recalls the old adage attributed to the American playwright Mark Twain: “Plan for the future, because that's where you are going to spend the rest of your life.”

Data source: GfK Verein

If you have any queries please contact Claudia Gaspar, e-mail:

October 2014