February 6, 2023 | Article
A joint study from McKinsey and NielsenIQ examines sales growth for products that claim to be environmentally and socially responsible.
Total US consumer spending accounts for over $14 trillion annually and two-thirds of the US GDP. An important subset of this spending goes toward everyday consumer packaged goods (CPG), ranging from foods and beverages to cosmetics and cleaning products. The sheer size of the CPG sector—with millions of employees and trillions of dollars in annual sales—makes it a critical component in efforts to build a more sustainable, inclusive economy.
About the authors
CPG companies increasingly allocate time, attention, and resources to instill environmental and social responsibility into their business practices. They are also making claims about environmental and social responsibility on their product labels. The results have been evident: walk down the aisle of any grocery or drugstore these days and you’re bound to see products labeled “environmentally sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “fair trade,” or other designations related to aspects of environmental and social responsibility. Most important is what lies behind these product claims—the actual contribution of such business practices to achieving goals such as reducing carbon emissions across value chains, offering fair wages and working practices to employees, and supporting diversity and inclusion. But understanding how customers respond to social and environmental claims is also important and has not been clear in the past.
When consumers are asked if they care about buying environmentally and ethically sustainable products, they overwhelmingly answer yes: in a 2020 McKinsey US consumer sentiment survey, more than 60 percent of respondents said they’d pay more for a product with sustainable packaging. A recent study by NielsenIQ found that 78 percent of US consumers say that a sustainable lifestyle is important to them. Yet many CPG executives report that one challenge to their companies’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives is the inability to generate sufficient consumer demand for these products. There are many stories of companies launching new products incorporating ESG-related claims only to find that sales fell short of expectations.
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How can both of these things be true? Do consumers really care whether products incorporate ESG-related claims? Do shoppers follow through and buy these products while standing in front of store shelves or browsing online? Do their real-life buying decisions diverge from their stated preferences? The potential costs—particularly in an inflationary context—of manufacturing and certifying products that make good on ESG-related claims are high. Accurately assessing demand for products that make these claims is vital as companies think about where to make ESG-related investments across their businesses. Companies should therefore be eager to better understand whether and how these types of claims influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. Is a shopper more likely to purchase a product if there’s an ESG-related claim printed on its package? What about multiple claims? Are some kinds of claims more resonant than others? Does a claim matter more if it’s appended to a pricier product? Is it less meaningful if it comes from a big, established brand?
Over the past several months, McKinsey and NielsenIQ undertook an extensive study seeking to answer these and other questions. We looked beyond the self-reported intentions of US consumers and examined their actual spending behavior—tracking dollars instead of sentiment. The result, for CPG companies, is a fact-based case for bringing environmentally and socially responsible products to market as part of overall ESG strategies and commitments. Creating such products turns out to be not just a moral imperative but also a solid business decision.
Products making ESG-related claims averaged 28 percent cumulative growth over the past five-year period, versus 20 percent for products that made no such claims.
To be clear, this is only a first step in understanding the complex question of how consumers value brands and products that incorporate ESG-related claims. This work has significant limitations that merit mention at the outset.
First, although this study examines how the sales growth of products that feature ESG-related claims fared relative to similar products without such claims,1 it does not demonstrate a causal relationship that definitively indicates whether consumers bought these brands because of the ESG-related claims or for other reasons. For instance, the study does not control for factors such as marketing investments, distribution, and promotional activity. It primarily explores the correlation between ESG-related claims and sales performance.
Second, McKinsey and NielsenIQ did not attempt to independently assess the veracity of ESG-related claims for these products. It is of course paramount for the development of a sustainable and inclusive economy that companies back any ESG-related claims they make with genuine actions. “Greenwashing”—empty or misleading claims about the environmental or social merits of a product or service—poses reputational risks to businesses by eroding the trust of consumers. It also compromises their ability to make more environmentally and socially responsible choices, and potentially undermines the role of regulators. This research is limited to assessing how ESG-related claims correlate with purchasing behavior.
Our approach: Getting granular with ESG in store aisles
In collaboration with NielsenIQ, McKinsey analyzed five years of US sales data, from 2017 to June 2022. The data covered 600,000 individual product SKUs representing $400 billion in annual retail revenues. These products came from 44,000 brands across 32 food, beverage, personal-care, and household categories.Share
Six types of ESG claims
NielsenIQ’s measurement capabilities enabled us to identify 93 different ESG-related claims—embodied in terms such as “cage free,” “vegan,” “eco-friendly,” and “biodegradable”—printed on those products’ packages. The claims were divided into six classifications: animal welfare, environmental sustainability, organic-farming methods, plant-based ingredients, social responsibility, and sustainable packaging (see sidebar, “Six types of ESG claims”). The research also drew on consumer insights from NielsenIQ’s household panel, which tracks the purchasing behavior of people in more than 100,000 US households.
At the most fundamental level, the analysis examined the rate of sales growth for individual products by category over the five-year period from 2017 to 2022. We compared the different growth rates for products with and without ESG-related claims, while controlling for other factors (such as brand size, price tier, and whether the product was a new or established one). The results provide insights into whether, and by how much, products with ESG-related claims outperform their peers on growth and how different types of products and claims perform relative to each other.
Not every brand that made a claim saw a positive effect on sales, and the data indicate a plethora of nuance at the product level. But this study did broadly reveal, in many categories, a clear and material link between ESG-related claims and consumer spending. The following four overarching insights are important for consumer companies and retailers that build portfolios of environmentally and socially responsible products as part of their overall ESG strategies and impact commitments.
1. Consumers are shifting their spending toward products with ESG-related claims
The first goal of the study was to determine whether, over this five-year period, products that made one or more ESG-related claims on their packaging outperformed products that made none. To compare, we looked at each product’s initial share of sales in its category and then tracked its five-year growth rate relative to that share.2 We learned that consumers are indeed backing their stated ESG preferences with their purchasing behavior.
This study did broadly reveal, in many categories, a clear and material link between ESG-related claims and consumer spending.
Over the past five years, products making ESG-related claims accounted for 56 percent of all growth—about 18 percent more than would have been expected given their standing at the beginning of the five-year period: products making these claims averaged 28 percent cumulative growth over the five-year period, versus 20 percent for products that made no such claims. As for the CAGR, products with ESG-related claims boasted a 1.7 percentage-point advantage—a significant amount in the context of a mature and modestly growing industry—over products without them (Exhibit 1). Products making ESG-related claims therefore now account for nearly half of all retail sales in the categories examined.