Eighty-five percent of people would boycott a company or brand if they suspected it was acting in an irresponsible or damaging way towards its people, its community or its environment.Reinforcing this is the fact that over three-quarters of people (76%) would be prepared to pay a little more for a product or service that was ethical in its social, environmental and general business practices.

The Ogilvy Earth South Africa Sustainability Survey was designed to see out how informed people are and find out what their attitudes are towards sustainability and environmental issues.  The survey was conducted online over a period of seven months and was completed by a total of 800 individual respondents in South Africa; the majority lives in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, is aged between 26 and 45 years, is the main shopper in the household and falls within in the LSM 6-10 category.

Other results reveal that nearly everyone in the poll (92.1%) agrees that climate change poses a real threat to how we will live in the future, which is interesting given that ‘climate change’ ranks 10th in the list of most pressing problems facing the country.  What this response does show though is that the South African population is aware of the problem and its negative impact.  Awareness is acute on other issues too:  nearly 90% (87,9%) of people think that not enough attention is given to the issue of water conservation;  over three-quarters of the sample (78%) would regularly recycle glass, paper and plastic if it were easier to do so; 84% believe that it is important that the products they use should be made from sustainable and renewable sources; 84% agree that companies should let them know more about where their food comes from; and a staggering 90% of people want to be shown simple ways to reduce water and electricity consumption.

The large majority of people (91%) want big brands to keep them up to date with news about the positive contribution they are making in society.  Supporting this attitude is the fact that 60,9% of people will buy a product because of the corporate social responsibility initiatives that the brand or company is involved in.  It would appear that, when it comes to corporate social responsibility, bragging would serve brands very well.

In terms of understanding what constitutes corporate social responsibility, 82.3% of respondents believe that this should include all the following:

* Cleaning up the environment, planting trees, creating food gardens and other similar community environment related projects;

* Reducing pollution from factories;

* Contributing to social developing – eg supporting schools and literacy programmes;

* Creating job opportunities to help alleviate poverty.

Caution is needed when it comes to green-washing (using environmental messaging to boost a brand’s integrity – genuine or perceived).  Asked about environmental messages (green-washing), the response was limp.  While 36,6% agree that green claims are just another money spinner and only 18,3% are able to trust a company’s green credentials, most were neutral on this.  Thirty-eight percent were neutral about green claims being a money spinner and 40,7% were neutral about whether a company’s green credentials could be trusted.  The overriding impression from this is that consumers don’t know who to trust.

Ogilvy Earth’s strategist, Melissa Baird says:  “This uncertainty is bound to have come from green washing.  Companies and brands need to be clear, honest and inspiring in their messaging – and the golden rule is to avoid green-washing altogether because it’s a deadly sin for a brand or a company in the long term.”

In terms of where the responsibility lies for addressing the biggest challenges we face in South Africa, over three-quarters of respondents (76%) believe everyone in society has a role to play; the balance (24%) identified that these issues should be addressed by government and large corporations.

Ogilvy Earth is encouraged by the survey results because they reveal that people are more “in the know” about sustainability issues than was previously assumed.

“We shouldn’t undermine what people think and know”, says Baird.  “What we also should not undermine is the potential for companies and brands to get their sustainability footprint right because their messaging can then reflect this for the greater good.  Certainly, there’s no room for fooling around with green messages if a company or brand hasn’t actually earned its green credentials.  The fact that people are asking for information about the good stuff that companies and brands are doing is a wonderful opportunity for some of the more modest organisations out there.  Better still, this might even translate into a call for action in terms of sales.

“What’s also clear from this survey is that we should not assume that what we do and what we say are not intrinsically linked and highly perceptible by our customers. People are far more ‘savvy’ than we give them credit for.  Ignore this at your peril.”