The segmentation of sustainability

The author(s)
  • Pippa Bailey Climate Change & Sustainability Practice, UK
  • Chris Murphy Market Strategy and Understanding, US
  • Steven Naert Global Solution Leader, Brand Strategy, Market Strategy and Understanding, Belgium
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Ipsos conducted a global segmentation study covering 15 markets (via Ipsos Essentials) across all continents.[9] The segmentation addressed the following themes: beliefs, values and attitudes towards the environment, concern for the environment, perception of positive action, willingness to act, actions currently being taken, personal challenges faced, purchasing behaviour and expectations of different bodies to act (government, business, and individual citizens). These questions equated to 47 variables which were analysed using an exploratory hierarchical cluster analysis and a K-means cluster analysis.

In short, we segmented the population on the bases of how they feel and what they do. The results of the analysis identified five segments, which can be broadly explained across two main dimensions: level of concern for the environment and the amount of action/intended action there is by individuals to reduce their own impact on the planet (see Figure 2).

While it is a useful starting point, this overview hides much nuance regarding the profiles barriers/ challenges, and opportunities that each segment presents.

Ipsos | sustainability | climate change | environement

When it comes to targeting, engaging, and employing different methods to drive more positive behaviour, a more detailed understanding of each of the segments is required, but, in summary, the segments can broadly be described as follows:

Ipsos | sustainability | climate change | environement



Ipsos | sustainability | climate change | environement This segment, which accounts for 17% of the global population, is convinced the environment is at a critical stage and the world must act now. They are skewed to be slightly younger and female and are willing to compromise their lifestyle for the environment. They are therefore also more likely to be engaging in more notable lifestyle changes, such as reducing meat and dairy consumption and not owning a car. While they are more environmentally literate than other segments, they may nevertheless still struggle to navigate the different tradeoffs involved in living a sustainable life. They are more likely to be making a wide range of significant life decisions for which they will want products, services and information-support in a manner that is timely and relevant. This segment also has an important function in signalling and modelling desirable behaviour to the wider population. They are likely to be embedding routines into their lives, hence passively educating and normalising behaviours that may be unfamiliar to many other members of the public. This means they have the potential to help others see that their actions are not individual, isolated acts but part of a wider movement, and as such, more meaningful.

The key challenge for governments, brands and employers is that this segment is likely to be quite challenging – willing to hold others’ promises to account. This also holds for social and governance issues such as diversity & inclusivity (D&I), good working practices and good education/opportunities for all. It is important to avoid silos in addressing these issues and it is better to operate in partnership with this segment, effectively crowd-sourcing guidance on the degree to which marketing strategies and government policy are doing enough. Disruptor/ insurgent brands are more likely to appeal to this segment.


Ipsos | sustainability | climate change | environement Making up almost a third of global citizens, this segment is skewed to be slightly older (Boomers) and more affluent; they provide an important counterpoint to the more vocal Activists. They do share a high level of concern about the environment compared with most, but they will be more ‘slow burn’ in the way they operate, looking for sustainable solutions at home which can be readily incorporated into their everyday lives. They are keen to put in place structures, buy products, and support policies that provide a coherent pathway for sustainable behaviours. They are also most focussed of all segments on social issues.

We can hypothesise that this segment has a strong set of core values that they operate by, embedded as part of their identity, the sort of person they see themselves as. This is evidenced by this segment over-indexing on the onus being more on the individual to take action to improve the environment and fight climate change. They are likely to need little support in making behaviour changes happen but at the same time will be critical of brands and government policies that do not help them enact behaviours that they consider to be important. That said, their actions often don’t have the greatest impact, which is indicative of the ‘Believe-True’ gap[7] – believing the steps they are taking are having a more significant impact than they are. They are genuinely well-intentioned, but their actions are often misaligned to that which truly make a difference. So, there is a need for education and guidance on the impact that government initiatives and business can bring. Properly directed, their spending power and cultural currency will give them influence. Given their scale and resources, this could become the most impactful of our segments. They have more money to spend and are more willing to pay a reasonable premium for sustainable and ethical products. They also believe more strongly than other segments that private companies should do more and therefore may be more critical of new products/ services that do not have a sustainable focus. Understanding the way they view environmental and social issues and the sorts of solutions and support they are looking for is therefore key.

Pragmatists are genuinely well-intentioned, but their actions are often misaligned with those that truly make a difference.

Conflicted Contributors

This is a segment that accounts for almost a fifth (18%) of the global population. They are concerned about the environment, but their financial situation often takes precedence over sustainability-related behaviours. This is an understandable position given that everyone has a range of competing needs and wants – particularly those who are struggling financially and who will necessarily need to focus on the short-term needs of housing, employment, energy usage and food.

On this basis, the challenge is how governments and brands can insert themselves into the narrow cognitive bandwidth of this segment to engage with them, offering substantive ways in which there is perhaps not a stark trade-off between financial constraints and the environment – but that the two can in fact be compatible. This requires communication that reflects the way this segment understands the world, empathises with their situation, and offers tangible and relevant solutions.

There may also be quite significant cultural barriers to overcome, given that narratives around sustainability have become somewhat aligned in people’s minds with a particular set of values and lifestyles rather than something that is relevant for everyone. In essence - this segment is lost at ‘paying’ more for sustainable products and services. If they are to be engaged then sustainability needs to be delivered as a co-benefit and not the primary benefit,8 which is the expectation of all but the most sustainably motivated and financially capable.

Busy Bystanders

Ipsos | sustainability | climate change | environement This is the smallest of the segments, representing 16% of the global population. They are skewed towards being Millennials who are married and more likely to be in full-time employment. It is a segment with some attitudinal conflict when it comes to sustainability. They generally acknowledge the issue - and are likely to share personal guilt regarding their inaction - but are still more likely to believe that concern for climate change is overblown.

The main challenge for this segment seems to be the many barriers they put up towards acting, believing that it is inconvenient, not a priority, and more effort than it is worth – all driven no doubt by their busy lives.

The challenge with this segment is to ‘disrupt’ their intuitive response to sustainability, challenging their assumptions that concern is overblown. To do this, a range of strategies can be used – such as driving curiosity in how climate change is taking place or challenging their sense of rightness in their preconceptions. Without this disruption, there will be limited opportunity to engage and participate in ‘sense-making’ on the topic.

Again, there is likely a set of political, social and identity barriers in addition to their knowledge. They may well perceive that people like them do not act on climate change: a critical barrier to acting. The biggest opportunity is to remove friction to drive engagement with more sustainable behaviours. If we lose our Conflicted Contributors at the verb ‘pay’, we lose our Busy Bystanders at the verb ‘do’.

Disengaged Denialists

Ipsos | sustainability | climate change | environement For this segment accounting for one in five (19%) global citizens, the environment is either not a concern, not immediate, or a largely overblown issue. They are less inclined to take environmental action themselves, nor expect it from anyone else, including government or companies. There is a faction within this segment that exhibits fatalism, tending to believe that it is too late to prevent environmental collapse. As such, they are less inclined to take individual action to reduce their impact on the environment.

This segment would clearly be the most difficult to crack for any marketer or policy maker. But all is not lost. It will be important to find areas of common ground and to build from there. A key to having the conversation is to avoid value-laden judgemental discussion (whose values are ‘better’) and focus instead on the outcomes – what are the implications of not acting that can be agreed on? Then from here find ways to mitigate them.

It is important to be respectful of this segment, as their position may be driven by lower awareness of the global situation and that they are more inward looking, having more immediate and pressing needs. But when the realities of environmental and social issues come to the fore, they have the potential to be strong allies. They need to be brought into the conversation ‘locally’ after better understanding their sensitivities. There is also an important signalling act here for the wider population of the importance of accepting a diversity of viewpoints.

Table of content

  1. Five key takeaways
  2. The context
  3. The segmentation of sustainability
  4. Geo-diversity in environmental concern
  5. Shifting dimensions
  6. From understanding to activation


[7] Ipsos. “Balancing People, Planet & Prosperity”19 May, 2022. Video. 

[9] Ipsos Essentials

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The author(s)
  • Pippa Bailey Climate Change & Sustainability Practice, UK
  • Chris Murphy Market Strategy and Understanding, US
  • Steven Naert Global Solution Leader, Brand Strategy, Market Strategy and Understanding, Belgium

Consumer & Shopper