To Consumers, Sustainability Looks Different Now

Credit: Marinte Doucet/Getty Images 

It’s easy to think that consumers, immersed in COVID-19 upheaval, are thinking less about the planet, and more about personal health now. And certainly, it’s always been true that in periods of economic distress, environmental concerns decline.

But new research from Getty Images shows that people are now linking the health of the environment to their own wellness. And they’re looking at the world of sustainability through a lens considerably wider than most marketers assume.

Pandemic-related images of crystal-clear Venetian canals or mountain goats sashaying down Main Street are adding to the fascination. “Now that we’re all locked down and seeing the impact of [human behavior] on the environment, there’s a greater awareness” and concern, says Rebecca Swift, Ph.D., global head of creative insights at Getty Images. “



Sustainability searches are up 142%, for example, and interest in sustainable living up 201%. That said, Getty’s Visual GPS research turned up the usual “consumption conundrums.” While 81% think of themselves as environmentally conscious, just 50% say they only buy from companies trying to be more eco-friendly.

Swift tells Marketing Daily the gaps show the ongoing tension between caring about the environment versus caving into what’s more convenient.

The research, designed to help brands and marketers better understand which images mean most to consumers, started with creative insights from its artists, curators, archivists, futurists and art directors, including visual analysis. Then Getty worked with YouGov to survey 10,000 consumers and professionals in 26 countries.

One of the biggest surprises? “There’s a persistent stereotype that Gen Z and millennials are considerably more eco-conscious. And our research shows interest in sustainability may be a point or two lower in baby boomers. But this is an interest that spans all age groups.”

And while there are some obvious visual blunders to avoid -- like fitness images that use plastic water bottles or office shots featuring disposable coffee cups --  Swift says marketers should be aware that consumers see sustainability in many forms. In the last 12 months, searches for “vegan food” increased by 149%, for example, with big surges in searches for “beach clean-ups” and “sustainable travel,” as well.

It’s not all houseplants and vegetable gardens out there, either. There’s a big increase in interest in grittier images, showing the impact of pollution. Swift says that’s because people are looking for “strong dramatic visuals that can change people’s minds.” 

For example, “We’ve known for decades that Venice is really under threat. And within a few weeks [of the lockdown], the water has turned blue and we can see fish. Will it change behavior? I don’t know. But it does make people think,” she adds.

Animals always get people’s attention. Swift points to the many shots of scorched koala survivors from Australia’s recent wildfires as another example of powerful imagery.

Simplicity is also increasingly connected to sustainability, as people become more aware of overconsumption and look for ways to pare down their lives. The rise of the Kondo Method -- and clothing resale -- led a 129% increase in decluttering searches. And for the first time, there was an interest in minimal- and zero-waste Christmas ideas.

What all this means for brands, Swift says, is that it’s important to focus on transparency, even as competitive pressure builds to be seen as more environmentally aware. “We want to figure out what kind of imagery helps brands be seen as sustainable because it’s hard to break through. We live in an increasingly visual world -- and having the perfect image or GIF can make all the difference in a brand message.”

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