Sustainability: More than a buzzword

November 2016

What do the heating technology company Vaillant, the organic food manufacturer Lebensbaum and Juist, an island located in the North Sea, have in common? They were all winners of the National German Sustainability Award 2015. It was launched eight years ago as a joint initiative between the Stiftung Deutscher Nachhaltigkeitspreis e.V. and the German government in addition to other economic, research and social institutions. The award recognizes the achievements of companies, municipalities and organizations who successfully combine social responsibility and environmentally friendly actions in their initiatives. It is also presumably initiatives such as this which have helped the term “sustainability” enjoy greater recognition over the past few years. Today, almost half of Germans confidently assert that they know exactly what the term means.

Time comparison: Increased awareness of sustainability

Sustainability is the talk of the town: While shopping, preparing a meal at home or while travelling – the term pops up in nearly all areas of life nowadays. We read it on flyers and clothes tags, in recipe books as well: It is therefore little wonder that the majority of people today are in some way aware of the term. Overall, 88% of respondents had heard of “sustainability” on at least one occasion; this is three percentage points more than in 2015. Just 12% admitted to having never encountered the term. These are the results of a survey conducted by GfK Market Research on behalf of the GfK Verein in September in which about 1,000 people were surveyed for the fifth time in a row.

After awareness of the term stagnated last year, there was again an increase in recognition of sustainability in 2016. Almost half of all Germans surveyed (48%) said that they were definitely familiar with the term. One year ago, this was just 38%. In contrast, the number of respondents who are somewhat aware of the term, but not entirely sure what it entails, fell from 47% to 40%. The numerous information campaigns and initiatives focusing on the subject of sustainability have evidently ensured that the term is now firmly rooted in the minds of Germans.

Differences in awareness: Background and gender play no part

Sustainability has spread across Germany: As was the case in the previous survey, awareness in East and West Germany is on a comparable level. Overall, 87% of East Germans and 89% of West Germans claim to be familiar with the term. In terms of gender, there no longer appears to be any gap in awareness. While in previous years men were mostly more confident in asserting their familiarity with the concept of sustainability than women, both genders are now on an equal footing. Currently, 48% of men and 48% of women are sure that they encountered the concept previously. Both men (41%) and women (40%) were also vaguely aware of the term to the same extent.

A look at age groups: Varying levels of knowledge

While region and gender are evidently not major influencing factors for familiarity with sustainability, a look at individual age groups paints a different picture, as was the case in previous years. Above all, the middle generations have already encountered the concept of sustainability. The term is most well-known among these respondents: 90% aged 50-64 and 91% aged 35-49 have encountered the term at least once previously. In the younger of the two groups, the proportion of respondents who confidently assert their familiarity with the term is particularly high: 56% say they have definitely encountered the term before. However, recognition is less widespread in the youngest and oldest age groups included in the survey: 87% of respondents aged 14-34 and 86% of those aged 65+ are familiar with sustainability. In addition, 43% of respondents in both groups say that they have definitely come across the issue of sustainability in the past.

The semantic range of sustainability: Environmental aspects way ahead

“Sustainability – this term has cropped up practically more than any other in recent years. But what actually is sustainability?” This question is posed by the creators of the „Lexikon der Nachhaltigkeit“ (the sustainability dictionary) website.  However, the website does not provide a particularly informative answer: “Scientists are intensely discussing how to define sustainability in general terms. However, it is clear that an agreement is not currently in sight.” Sustainability is evidently a multi-faceted phenomenon. This makes a simple definition quite tricky as there are many aspects associated with the concept. Respondents in Germany have tended to increasingly link environmental aspects with the term in recent years. As in previous surveys, the majority of respondents spontaneously associate environmentally responsible behavior and business practices with the subject of sustainability. Once again, this aspect was the primary association for one in four respondents (29%). A total of 18% consider sustainability in the context of saving resources such as water or crude oil; this is an increase of seven percentage points in comparison with 2015. Equally as many think of the use of renewable resources. And for 13%, the term primarily means recycling.

Changing associations: Ideas becoming clearer

It was not always that case that environmental aspects dominated the upper echelons of the rankings. In 2012, durability was the still the number one association. Nearly one fifth of respondents associated sustainability with this wide-ranging term. Now, the equivalent value is just over one in ten (12%). The associations made by German respondents with this subject have evidently become more specific in the past few years. The lower reaches of the rankings have more or less remained unchanged: 8% of respondents take sustainability to mean considering the consequences of one’s own actions; 7% associate the concept with the idea of saving energy; just 6% explicitly mentioned thinking about future generations. Other aspects which could easily be associated with sustainability – and these are also listed on the sustainability dictionary website mentioned above – do not appear to immediately occur to respondents when asked to name their associations with the term. In this regard, statistics reveal that nobody linked key phrases such as Fairtrade or fair pay, for example.

Knowledge increases, importance remains stable

Yet to what extent have increased knowledge and more concrete perceptions actually influenced our principles? Do people now pay more attention to the origins of products or services? Anyone who believes that increased familiarity with and recognition of the term sustainability directly and proportionately feeds into consumer attitudes would be mistaken. While it may be important for 58% of households today that products and services carry the “sustainable” label (31% believe it to be important, 27% state that this is very important), the reality is that things have only changed minimally since 2014. And that is despite the proportion of respondents confidently asserting that they know all about sustainability rising by a not insignificant nine percentage points in the same timeframe.

Ensuring that increased awareness of sustainability affects attitudes, eventually altering consumer behavior, may well also be an objective of the founders of the National German Sustainability Award. The next large public initiative is planned for November. The 2016 award winners will be announced at an event organized for the “9th German Sustainability Day”. Anybody wishing to take part can do so in line with the ethos of sustainability: The event organizers ensure that the congress is a climate-neutral event.

Data source: GfK Verein, Study "Nachhaltigkeits-Bekanntheit" (GfK Classic Bus, September 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016)

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