Attracting new generations of conscious consumers: address the attitude-action-gap

By Dr Nina Terrey

Introduce conscious consumerism and its importance

In today’s world, the concept of conscious consumerism has become increasingly important. Gone are the days when consumers would merely focus on the price and quality of a product. Now, more and more people are becoming aware of the need to consider the social and environmental impact of their purchases. Conscious consumerism involves making more informed choices about what we buy, where we buy it, and who we buy it from. It is about taking responsibility for our actions and ensuring that the products we purchase are ethically and sustainably sourced. This approach to consumerism is not only good for the planet, but it also encourages businesses to adopt more socially and environmentally responsible practices. Increasingly, consumers, have the power to create change by choosing to support companies that align with their values. As policy makers, sustainability officers, brand managers and product entrepreneurs, taking a conscious-consumer-centred approach to your work is essential to remain relevant and contribute to a more sustainable future.

How can we recognise the conscious consumer?

Conscious consumers are those who are aware of the social and environmental impact their choices have. They actively seek out information to make sure they are making ethical and sustainable decisions when it comes to shopping and consumption. This type of consumer is likely to examine product labels and certifications, research companies’ sustainability policies, or look for fair trade symbols when shopping. They are looking for the most responsible way to spend their money and make sure it contributes to a better world. In a recent Fair Trade USA™ 2022 Consumer Insights Report, An Investment in Trust: Conscious Consumerism Goes Mainstream Despite Economic Headwinds the trend for increasing value placed by consumers continues to be a upward trend:

45% – Millennials pay 20% more for a Fair Trade Certified product

48% – Gen Zs say they would pay 20% more for a Fair Trade Certified product

These numbers indicate that in order to attract new generations of conscious consumers, businesses will need to be transparent about their practices and communicate the efforts they are making towards sustainability. Consumers want to know that companies care about more than just profits – they are responsible businesses. But studies have shown that although consumers report favourable attitudes toward pro-environmental brands, they often do not subsequently display sustainable actions (White. K., Rishad, H. and Hardisty, D.J 2019). This is known as the ‘attitude-action-gap’.

What is the attitude-action-gap?

The attitude-action-gap is the discrepancy between what consumers say about their support for pro-environmental practices and brands and their actual behaviour when it comes to sustainable consumption. This phenomenon has been highlighted in various studies, and is a major obstacle for sustainability leaders, marketers, companies, public policy makers, and non-profit organisations in their efforts to promote sustainable consumption. To bridge this gap and increase engagement with conscious consumers, it is important to explore the social and behavioural factors that influence their behaviour. But firstly its important to grasp three core barriers to sustainable consumerism.

What are three barriers to conscious consumerism?

Barrier 1: The problem of abstractness and lack of transparency

Sustainable consumerism can at times feel like a vague, intangible concept that lacks concrete actions and tangible outcomes. It is crucial that brands and organizations working towards sustainable initiatives focus on providing their customers, and stakeholders with concrete examples of how their actions can make a tangible difference. This not only creates more engaged and informed consumers, but also helps to bridge the gap between sustainability and consumerism. By communicating the importance of sustainable choices in practical terms, brands can inspire consumers to make a real difference in their daily lives. A recent example of brand breaking the abstract concept of sustainability is the Allbirds M0.0NSHOT shoes.  This breakthrough product claims to be the fist net zero shoe, and pledged to open-source information relating to the design of the shoes and the carbon accounting methods used. The intent is to inform consumers, and also to set a transparent approach for other brands in the sector innovate to reduce emissions.

Barrier 2: Learned ways of consuming are automatic

Sustainable consumerism has become a growing concern for individuals and businesses alike. However, the problem of learned ways of consuming poses a significant obstacle to achieving sustainable consumption patterns. Consumers, have been conditioned over time to prioritise convenience, cost, and availability over environmental considerations. This conditioning goes further as consumers,  are wired to automatically make certain choices that may be beneficial in the short-term but can have negative effects on the environment in the long-term. Breaking the cycle of these automatic behaviours is essential to promoting sustainable consumption. It requires a shift in our mindset and the adoption of conscious decision-making practices that prioritise the environment’s well-being. In practice this means that we need to pay attention to the everyday behaviours and practices of people in households and businesses, in their socio-technical contexts. This means understanding the social learning processes that take place. For example a recent Unilever study found that activist influencer social media content has the single biggest impact on people’s green choices today, and the emphasis on positive norms (desirable behaviours) rather than negative norms (undesirable behaviours). The use of optimistic and pragmatic content being effective in nudging people to adopt more sustainable practices.

Barrier 3: Self-other trade-off

Consumers  often face a trade-off between own self-interest and the interests of others and the environment. This problem arises as a result of our individualistic culture, where we prioritise our own needs and desires over those of the community at large. This self-other trade-off creates a conflict between ethical consumption and our own personal desires, making it difficult for many to truly embrace sustainable consumerism. In other words, people often choose convenience or personal gain over sustainability, without fully considering the impact of their actions on the world around them. In order to overcome this problem, we must work to shift our cultural mindset towards a more collective understanding and appreciation of the impact our consumption has on others and the environment. Only then can sustainable consumption become a truly viable and widespread option. An example of this dilemma is the use of energy at the household level. Studies have shown that if consumers are advised that people similar to them (e.g., peers, neighbours) are using less energy or taking certain energy-saving actions, in addition to conveying social approval of such actions, will likely motivate them to conform to these positive ‘energy saving’ norms and reduce their consumption accordingly. By understanding the behavioural science underpinning consumerism, and by product service type, we can start to generate more targeted interventions that start to address the self-other trade-off barrier.


To conclude, the landscape of conscious consumerism rapidly moving, in both directions of positive changed behaviours, but it is clear that there are several barriers to sustainable consumerism. However, if we can recognise the power of social learning, communicating narratives of ethical product design and use as minimal to low impact on the environment and social systems, we can address the attitude-action gap, and take actionable steps towards creating a future where sustainability is no longer just an abstract concept but rather something everyone puts into practice every day!


2022 Consumer Insights Report: An Investment in Trust: Conscious Consumerism Goes Mainstream Despite Economic Headwinds 

White. K., Rishad, H. and Hardisty, D.J (2019) How to shift consumer behaviours to be more sustainable, Journal of Marketing, May 2019

White. K., Rishad, H. and Hardisty, D.J The elusive Green Consumer, Harvard Business Review, July-Aug 2019

Worlds First Net Zero Carbon Shoe 

George, S. Allbirds Tout first net zero carbon shoes, March 2023

Unilever reveals that influencers can switch people to sustainable living