Sustainability within UK businesses

Now that humans have a better understanding of their long-term impact on the planet, many brands are placing renewed focus on their sustainability. Whether in operational or in PR terms, consumers notice this. The question is: what do they think of it? Capterra surveyed more than 700 adults in the UK to learn more about their attitudes to sustainability, what they consider important, and how this affects their purchasing and employment decisions. ( A full methodology can be found at the bottom of the article.)

98% are familiar with sustainability, but nearly half say this has little influence on them

Overall, UK consumers have very high awareness of sustainability. When asked how familiar they are with the concept, 56% say they definitely know it, while 42% are “a bit familiar”, totalling 98% overall.

number of consumers familiar with sustainability in the UK

This corresponds to a broad openness towards companies’ sustainability efforts. More than half of those surveyed (53%) think it’s important that companies undertake actions for the environment, while a similar proportion (50%) say it’s important for companies to include sustainability in their values. Only 15% think that brands’ sustainability actions are only for marketing and PR positioning. However, in June 2021, the UK government announced steps to tackle “greenwashing” — exaggerated claims about environmental sustainability — with a new independent group to advise on standards for green investment.

Nevertheless, consumers are realistic about companies’ motivations. 41% of people surveyed say that companies’ main goal when advocating for sustainability is selling products, versus 38% who say they do it to make a real change.

Main goal businesses have then advocating for sustainability

Consumers’ awareness of sustainability does not necessarily change their behaviour. 47% say companies’ sustainability actions have minimal or no influence on their selection of products or providers, 42% say the influence is “moderate”, and only 12% say that these actions influence them “very much”.

An example of this change in behaviour is checking the sustainability of products before purchase. 69% of UK consumers surveyed say they do this in some way, with 50% checking packaging, 34% checking ingredients, and 32% checking the materials used.

Cost is a major factor for not choosing sustainable products

60% of UK consumers say the pandemic is making them reassess the way they buy. 29% of these say the change is radical, and that they “want to be more conscious and buy more sustainable products.” 75% of respondents say that reducing the use of plastics is an important sustainable action to them. This is followed by reducing emissions (52%) and buying fair-trade products (39%).

It is clear that consumers consider sustainability to be more of an issue in some areas than others. When we asked people for which type of purchase sustainability is most important, food and drink (63% of respondents) and clothing (53%) were the clear leaders. Technology was far behind, cited by 22% of respondents, but the environmental impact of digital technology is significant. According to the UN, the amount of annual e-waste is set to double by 2050, although manufacturers and lawmakers are acting to ensure that products are longer-lasting, easier to repair, and that waste can be recycled or disposed of more safely. 

Actions by companies important for consumers in the UK

Of those who say that sustainability has little or no influence on their choice of products or providers, the main reason given is that sustainable products cost more (42%). 25% say they don’t understand how sustainable products are different, while 30% say they “don’t want to limit [their] options”.

10% is a “fair” premium, say most consumers

Many products that are marketed as sustainable cost more than those that are not. Markups, according to Kearney, vary between 20% and 220%, depending on category. Retail Focus attributes this as much to low demand for such products as it does to the actual cost of producing them. Recognising this, perhaps, just over half (52%) of UK consumers “somewhat agree” that sustainable products are fairly priced.

This attitude is reflected in people’s willingness to pay a premium for sustainable products. When asked about how much more they would be prepared to pay in various categories, the majority said 10% consistently across all five categories: transport and delivery, food and drink, clothing, beauty and wellness, and household products. Similarly consistently, between 28% and 32% of people across all categories said they would not be willing to pay any more for sustainable products. 

Total percentage of extra spend in sustainable products by consumers

Employees rate companies highly for sustainability 

As well as questions about their habits as consumers, the respondents to our survey also answered questions about sustainability as it relates to their employment. 77% of respondents are employed full time, while 23% work part-time, with none self-employed, retired, or students.

Overall, UK companies seem to be relatively engaged in sustainability. 54% of the employees we surveyed say that their employer has sustainable measures in place compared with 22% who say their company does not. Awareness is perhaps the issue here: 23% of respondents said they don’t know the answer to this question, indicating either a lack of action or a lack of internal communication in this area.

91% of the companies whose employees say they undertake sustainability measures focus their actions on the environment. These include reducing waste, preventing pollution, adopting clean energy, using sustainable materials, and making products sustainable. 51% of companies also undertake social actions in areas such as diversity and inclusion, health and social equity, labour rights, practices, and decent working conditions. 

The 54% of employees whose companies have sustainability measures in place rate their employers highly across a range of sustainability criteria – specifically:

  • Advocating for diversity and inclusion in the recruitment process.
  • Positively impacting the local community in their processes.
  • Taking care of the employees’ well-being (e.g., work-life-balance, well-being in the office space.)
  • Positively impacting the environment (recycling, sustainable energy usage.)

The majority would rate their company a 4 out of 5 in all these areas. It is worth pointing out that software is available to help companies meet their sustainability goals. 

Recruitment software can help overcome some of the subconscious bias from the hiring process by anonymising job applications. Corporate wellness software helps companies create and maintain health improvement programs for their employees. And employers can keep staff feeling engaged and motivated with employee recognition software, through which they can track performance and send rewards, among many other features.

Somewhat reflecting their attitudes towards companies as consumers, respondents said that the sustainability of a company is only a minor influence on their decisions when applying for a job. 40% say it would moderately affect their choice, 35% said it would do so “minimally”, and 16% “not at all”.

Key takeaways

  • People —whether they are staff or customers— care about the sustainability measures that companies have in place.
  • When choosing to buy from or work at a company, people do consider sustainability, but it’s not the main driver.
  • Clothing and food and drink are the purchases where most people consider sustainability to be important, but most are only willing to pay 10% more for sustainable products.
  • Employees rate their employers highly across sustainability criteria, and there are various software packages available to help companies with their sustainability goals.
Looking for sustainability software? Check out our catalogue.

Survey methodology:

To collect the data for this report, we conducted an online survey in July 2021.  Of the total respondents, we were able to identify 703 UK respondents that fit within our criteria:

  • UK resident
  • Over 18 years-old
  • Employed full-time or part-time