Sustainable consumption

August 2013

It’s nothing new to catch the aroma of a barbecue on a summer’s day. What is new is using a barbecue as a protest: last weekend, environmental associations in around 900 German towns rallied participants to “BBQ for agricultural change”. Anything was allowed on their barbecues – just not meat from sources where animals are treated inappropriately. The idea attracted a lot of media attention – but this kind of event was far from unusual in Germany, a country where environmental and nature protection have been a longstanding tradition. The preservation of natural resources has even become part of the German Constitution. Protecting the environment is therefore a top priority for the nation. But just how much of an actual influence does this mindset have on German consumer behavior?

The answer varies according to product group. GfK’s consumer panel came to the conclusion that environmentally conscious shopping is gaining significant momentum on the one hand, whilst still cultivating a niche existence on the other. Whereas the German electronic appliance market is a resounding success, natural cosmetics and organic food are both lagging behind.

Organic food: spending slowly on the rise

From 2004 to 2012, national expenditure on biologically produced food rose from 2% to (a still rather meager) 4%. But not all organic products are at the top of consumers’ shopping lists. Considerably fewer Germans are attracted to the organic versions of indulgent wares, such as sweets or sausage, than to the “healthier” organic ranges and basic foodstuffs: muesli, sandwich spreads, fruit and vegetables.
On the whole, there are very few people who have never eaten something organic. Howev-er, the low proportion of people’s total budget allocated to food shopping means that most people only sporadically spend on organic food. However, the figures show an increase in spending from those who do already buy organic: between 2009 and 2012, average annual expenditure per customer rose from EUR 84 to EUR 121. This should really come as good news to purveyors of sustainable and natural produce but private labels are the ones clearly profiting the most from this trend (find more about this in our FocusTopic Benefit of organic products). Among manufacturer brands, shoppers are above all won over by medium-sized companies whose entire range is sustainable. They come across as more credible than major global corporations which must serve the mainstream and therefore only offer organic goods as a supplement to their standard stock.

Natural cosmetics: trying out, but not hanging about

Nowadays, naturally-sourced products are not confined exclusively to the kitchen; they’re also available in the domain of personal care. Natural cosmetics promise the customer a dual advantage: they conserve the environment whilst gently caring for sensitive skin. Nevertheless, with 5% in 2012, the proportion of consumer expenditure on natural cosmetics was scarcely larger than on food, despite this proportion having risen steadily over the past few years. Here too, results differ according to the product. Germans more often tend to go for the organic range when it comes to long-lasting care products for the face and body. But with shower, bath and shaving products – those that run quickly down the drain and must be repurchased – consumers largely prefer the more conventional ranges.

Nowadays, a quarter of Germans groom themselves with natural cosmetics – at the very least to try them out. Consumer reach was shown to have increased from 16% in 2007 to 22% in 2012. However, the chasm that exists between consumer reach and market share demonstrates that many consumers try these products around once per year but then don’t end up buying them again.

Electronic appliances: great for savings potential

The electronics market is an entirely different ball game. Unlike groceries and cosmetics, which are more expensive than their conventional counterparts, environmentally friendly electronic appliances are financially worthwhile: although buying them entails initially forking out, consumers do then tend to save in the medium and long term, as these devices use less energy. This has heralded a rise in energy-efficient electronic goods all over the country, making Germany a leader for this kind of consumption. This rise is presumably also a result of the fact that energy costs in Germany are high, so the benefit of anything that saves on energy is felt relatively early on.

Sustainability alone is not enough

The market for sustainable products and services is growing and will continue to do so – simply because important target groups such as LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) are becoming increasingly important. Nevertheless, it is by no means easy for manufac-turers and retailers to actually sell sustainable concepts to consumers. Only if a product of-fers more advantages than simply being good for the environment, and strikes the consumer as genuinely authentic, do these concepts pay off and entice buyers sustainably.

Data Source: GfK Panel Services (Consumer Scan, Individual panel, 2012), GfK Retail panel

If you have any queries concerning this article please contact Prof. Dr. Raimund Wildner or Claudia Gaspar.

For any further queries regarding GfK Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar, e-mail: