The Cost of Sustainability

Trends / Sustainability
Sandra Michalska & Carolina Sampaio Lechner
Apr 10, 2023
Can consumers worry about the end of the world while worrying about the end of the month?

Once again, the European summer of 2022 was hot – the hottest on record.1 While temperatures rose, so did the cost of living: inflation rates in the Eurozone have reached an all‑time peak,2 and have been highest in the UK in 40 years.3 In fact, 2022 was so impacted by crises that Collins dictionary elected permacrisis, meaning “an extended period of instability and insecurity”, as the word of the year.Our VisualGPS consumer survey5 showed that while 7 in 10 Europeans say it’s important that their actions do not have a negative impact on the environment, the most common reason for people to not act sustainably is the perceived higher cost, which is especially true for respondents with a low income.

So, how can we include sustainability in visual stories in a way that also connects to consumers’ current realities?
Can consumers worry about the end of the world while worrying about the end of the month?
Sustainability for everyone?
Getty Images VisualGPS research found that there is an economic divide as to which sustainable actions people perceive they can take. While people with lower income might more commonly recycle or find alternatives to buying new, respondents with a higher income will also take actions that cost money in the short term, for example using environmentally friendly products and making their home energy efficient.

Younger adults predominate visuals most popular with European Getty Images and iStock customers. They are five times more likely to be represented in sustainability‑related visuals than people aged 50+.  Most popular scenes focus on smart energy devices, e‑vehicle charging stations and solar panels being used or installed in bright, modern homes. These homes tend to reflect a limited range of income levels with interior design that reflects “sustainable” frugality ‑ clean design with houseplants and natural wood furniture.

Visual storytelling which takes the social divide into account and translates it into sustainable actions that are accessible and inclusive of everyone, regardless of income, age, ethnicity or other identity factors is worth considering. This approach can help inspire people to sustainable actions in their everyday by being more relatable.
Visual Evolution of Sustainable Symbols
Over the years, our Getty Images and iStock customers rely on specific symbols to visualise sustainability ‑ the iconic recycling sign, soil with a growing green shoot in cupped hands or the globe in people's arms. The cost‑of‑living crisis has shifted visual storytelling from growth to empathy for the environment through visuals picturing children hugging trees or people volunteering for environmental conservation projects. This will further evolve to include connected concepts around the circular economy and visualising more frugal and thoughtful lifestyles. When de‑influencers educate tiktokers on what not to buy12 – it looks like frugal living is really going mainstream.

Colour palettes around sustainability in our customers’ visual choices are also evolving. Traditionally, sustainable messaging is dominated by green tones related to nature. A go‑to tone for sustainable finance, green tech, and sustainable lifestyle visuals, it has also become the colour of greenwashing or greenhushing13. 79% of Europeans believe companies label products as ''green'' or ''eco‑friendly'' as a marketing ploy.

Alternatively, visual testing research with consumers shows other possibilities. Europeans of all generations are drawn to visuals illustrating sustainability through vibrant colour palettes—from sunny yellows to floral fuchsias. Choosing bright and unexpected colours to tell stories around sustainability has the power to bring much‑needed levity at a time where consumers are eager to see it.
1 Copernicus: Summer 2022 Europe’s hottest on record (Copernicus / European Commission)
2 Euro zone inflation hits record high of 10.7% as growth slows sharply (CNBC)
3 Consumer price inflation, UK: November 2022 (Office for National Statistics)
4 The Collins Word of the Year (Collins Dictionary)
5 The UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and the Nordics, i.e., Denmark, Norway, and Sweden
6 In numbers: How is the cost of living crisis impacting consumer attitudes towards sustainability? (edie)
7 Survey: Cost‑of‑living crisis to set to lower consumer appetite for sustainable products (edie)
8 The Food Foundation in: Millions forced to skip meals as UK cost of living crisis deepens (The Guardian)
9 Jeder Beitrag zählt. Damit wir gut durch den Winter kommen. (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz)
10 Factbox: France's action plan to cut energy consumption (reuters)
11 Data point: ending exploitation of Earth’s resources (Economist Impact)
12 TikTok’s De‑Influencers Tell You What Not to Buy (Wired)
13 In a world of greenwashing and ‘greenhushing’, has transparency lost its meaning? (The Drum)

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