What do people want when they ask for sustainable products or investments? 

If you are a researcher, marketer, communications specialist or product developer you may be wondering how to make sense of what seem to be competing trends in sustainability.

Our research has shown that the first step is to realise that what people mean by sustainability is probably different from what you mean.

What 'sustainability' means

This is what sustainability means at your workplace

  • If you work in an organisation that specialises in (say) vegan foods, it is likely that you will think about sustainability within the context of agriculture and perhaps the ethics of killing animals. If you work in investment, sustainability for you might  equate to socially-responsible investing so you may avoid investing in gambling for example. If you work in fashion, you may be working on creating substitutes for leather, perhaps. There are many other examples where what sustainability means to you depends on where you work.

  • Brands that offer sustainable products and the competing brands that don't 'take sides', and argue against each other in simple black versus white terms. Some of those brands then take that black versus white discourse to the public. 

This is what sustainability means to everyone else

If you don't work for organisations like these, your exposure to sustainability has been very different.

  • You may have come across the competing arguments from all the different brands but not just from the narrow perspective of one product category. You have probably seen and heard fragments of the discourse about raw foods, recycling versus re-use, alternative energy resources (and how they are manufactured or disposed of), as well as ethical investing.
  • Sometimes, the public gets drawn into arguments about the science or the challenges of predicting the future
  • People can start to feel guilty because they can't be 100% this or that, a guilt which has been artificially created by brands arguing with competitors in the media
  • To add to that, we all have competing and potentially conflicting needs and values. What matters to us as individuals may put us in conflict with our social group for example, and sometimes the social group is more important to us than our own beliefs.

What sustainability means for researchers and insight teams

I believe that researchers should not take sides, even when they are conducting research for a client who is on one side. We don't help that client if we blind them to the value of competing arguments. Brands need to know - and empathise with -  the tensions that prevent potential customers from choosing whether or not to join their cause. Researchers who pretend that this is a black-versus-white winner-takes-all debate to please their client actually harm their client by failing to alert them to key issues.

We should also build into our research designs the idea that people may feel tension between bonding with their social group and their own ideas and vice versa.

So how should we conduct sustainability research?

Aware of how difficult this is, Dominika Noworolska, Emmet Ó Briain and I decided we would tackle the topic of sustainability research when we spoke at the Esomar Fringe Festival in 2020.  We felt that each of our specialities could contribute a unique perspective -  Dominika on the semiotics of sustainability, Emmet on sustainability discourses. and me on qualitative sensemaking research. 

Here are the videos of our presentations

Dominika explains the concept of semiotic codes and narratives and explains how the meaning of sustainability changes across cultures, and over time.  After listening to her description of the semiotic square you will never again define sustainability as a simple opposition to wastefulness. 

Emmet explores what discourse analysis is and analyses how brands talk about sustainability. Emmet's analysis shows how the tabloid press in Ireland - and this is true too of Australia - position climate change as "exotic and absurd". He also critiques the typical way that brands respond to issues like this, saying "brands fail to make sense of the everyday world because they tend to relate to it as external to them."  

In my presentation, I share a sensemaking qualitative research case study I conducted with vegetarians and vegans. I make the point that we won't understand where sustainability is going in a commercial or moral sense, unless we actively look for the tensions that people feel when they try to act according to their social beliefs.

Dominika Noworolska


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Emmet Ó Briain


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Sue Bell


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Website www.sbresearch.com.au 

Tags: Semiotics, Sensory research, Discourse Analysis, Sensemaking, Sustainable investing, Sustainability, Plant-based foods