SWITCHING TO SUSTAINABILITY
By Gauthier Ajarrista
The issue of sustainability and the environmental impact of human activity has once again become one of the most hotly debated topics in society and the media, driven this time by alarming statistics that show the extent to which our addiction to plastic is ruining our planet. In the UK alone, we use nigh on 40 million plastic bottles every day – almost half of which doesn’t get recycled, and ends up in landfills, incinerators or out in the environment. On a global level, it’s a million bottles a minute, with a far lower recycling rate, set to increase another 20% by 2021. And in case those numbers were hard to visualise for anyone, David Attenborough’s heart-breaking depictions of marine life decimated by plastic waste in the popular Blue Planet II certainly hammered the point home. Under pressure from the public and top MPs, Prime Minister Theresa May has promised to rid the UK of all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.
In the hot seat
It’s a mammoth challenge that demands large-scale concerted action at every level, from individual consumers to international organisations, by way of national and local government and, very importantly, businesses. Yet, aside from the likes of coastline-ravaging petrol companies and monkey-gassing car manufacturers, it seems most brands have somehow managed to get by so far without taking on much blame for their often-sizeable contributions to the problem.
For many years already, we’ve been told as consumers to change our behaviour, sort our trash, dispose of our plastics properly and avoid unrecyclable packaging. But it seems that today society is beginning to look at the bigger picture, and asking: what about the companies who are actually making and selling these colossal amounts of plastic?
This has sent many FMCG brands and most UK supermarkets scrambling to come up with their own measures to address the problem. Earlier this month, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose and Morrisons all announced more or less ambitious plans to release less plastic into the world, from Waitrose vowing to stop selling plastic straws to Tesco’s promise to make all packaging either recyclable or compostable by 2025. However, all were trumped a few days later when Iceland declared its intention of going completely plastic free by 2023. On the brand front, Evian has led the charge by announcing its goal to use 100% recycled plastic by 2025, and urging other brands to take action on a similar scale.
There is a lot to win for brands here, as there is already strong demand for sustainable brands. Research by Unilever found that in the UK, over half of consumers already buy (33%) or would like to buy (21%) products with sustainability in mind, while a YouGov study revealed how more than half (55%) of UK consumers said that they would feel “much more than positive” about a company that has reduced the carbon footprint of its products. It’s easy to see how these numbers could blow up further in the coming years, with consumers no longer seeing sustainability as a lifestyle choice, but rather an imperative for anyone regardless of tribes and trends.
Furthermore, there’s also a huge opportunity to reduce costs and make businesses more efficient in the meantime. Stateside, a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund and Calvert Research and Management revealed that nearly 80,000 emission reductions projects undertaken by 190 Fortune 500 companies have resulted in nearly $3.7 billion in savings in 2016. With the cost of renewable energy plummeting in the past few years, it’s now far more cost-efficient to use wind and solar energy than for example coal.
However, there could also be a lot to lose for brands who wake up too late and find themselves left behind when everyone else has moved on with making their businesses sustainable and ready to face a challenging future.
That’s why we’ve come up with a few key pointers to help brands navigate the challenge of staying ahead in the age of sustainability:
1. Be Proactive
While the initiatives announced en-masse in the last few weeks by brands and retailers alike are mostly laudable, it’s hard to see them as anything other than simply reacting to public outrage. Many people will feel that these brands are just trying to place themselves on the right side of history before it’s too late. Ultimately, if they do come through with their promises, we’ll all be the better for it. However, plastics is just one of the more visibly awful aspects of what’s being inflicted to our planet right now. Businesses need to look proactively at what other harmful effects they are causing, and how they can limit these. From the amount of old trucks that they’re putting on the road, to how they look after their workers in emerging countries, and their use of often increasingly scarce resources, there’s a long list that all brands should be looking at. And they need to do so ahead of the game, of their own initiative, rather than waiting for the next media frenzy to only then align themselves with the public’s changing expectations.
2. Be Authentic
Consumers are looking for more purpose in brands today. Yet while many brands do try and provide such purpose, it’s often noted that most fail miserably. People mostly aren’t buying it, because there’s usually a feeling of dishonesty about it. When brands don’t 100% practice what they preach, the brand-savvy, cynical and well-informed consumers of today sniff it out instantly, and don’t hesitate to rip them apart for all to see. Take for example Tiger Beer’s recent campaign based around the Singaporean Karung Guni (rag-and-bone men), attempting to raise awareness in the country around recycling. When it turned out that part of the campaign involved rewarding the Karung Guni with promotional plastic trinkets and offering Facebook contestants free merch, that is to say, more stuff to soon end up in a landfill or an ocean, observers were quick to call the whole thing a “fail”. For brands to actually benefit from taking steps towards sustainability, they have to ensure that whatever they attempt is applied consistently across everything they do and say, to the last pesky little detail. Anything less will always come across as posturing, or simply fail to hit the mark.
3. Be Activists
As discussed above, the key to solving the pressing environmental issues at hand is through concerted action: peoples, governments and businesses working together to create lasting change. Yet in the complex relationship between government policy and business, it’s usually a case of the former being wielded to rein in the excesses of the latter. Predictably, MPs are the ones calling for companies to limit the effects of their activities, rather than companies urging MPs to enforce stricter legislation. However, brands truly committed to sustainability must reverse this dynamic, and become the ones pressing governments to tackle the environmental crisis head on. Currently, supermarkets in the UK contribute the least towards plastic waste collection and recycling compared to other EU countries, most notably Germany, where producers pay 100% of the costs incurred. In spite of Brexit, there’s a high chance that in time, the UK will have to transition towards the Germanic model. However, last year it was revealed that trade bodies representing major brands and supermarkets had actively lobbied against plans to boost recycling by implementing an EU “polluter pays” directive. In the future, these brands (particularly the ones already talking about sustainability) need to, here again, get ahead of the curve, and lobby to instead play a greater role in the process of sustainable waste management.
4. Be Collaborative
Another aspect of concerted action is that of brands amongst themselves, pushing towards increased collaboration for the greater good. Budweiser has recently created a renewable electricity symbol to indicate when its beer has been brewed entirely on clean energy, which is a good idea if only in terms of communicating good intentions to consumers and helping guide them towards better purchasing habits. However, on top of that, the brand is inviting others to use the logo with their own products, thereby placing themselves at the forefront of a collective movement that could possibly set a new industry standard. This also shows Budweiser as committing to sustainability on a larger scale, beyond the hustle for competitive advantage, which is key to reassuring consumers of their honest commitment to sustainability.
5. Be Communicative
Marks & Spencers have long made sustainability a cornerstone of their business. The brand launched their “Plan A” 10 years ago, and have since made 296 commitments and helped the company save £750m on factors like packaging and energy costs. However, they’re the first to admit that they’ve struggled to communicate these efforts to consumers, in their own words having come across more as “paternalistic and distant” than “engaged”. To avoid a similar fate, last year Coca-Cola spent millions of pounds on their ‘Love Story’ campaign which highlighted the fact that their bottles were 100% recyclable, and encouraged consumers to recycle more. Through an emotionally enticing message, and enough media push to reach 35 million consumers, Coca-Cola gave a strong voice to its own sustainability initiatives, and helped to position the brand as a serious leader (rather than a culprit) in the fight against plastic.
6. Be Innovative
One of the key barriers stopping mainstream consumers from getting more into sustainable brands is the premium that often comes with those. How do you convince people to spend more on sustainable brands when austerity, stagnating wages and rising uncertainty mean they’re counting their pennies ever more carefully? The key is for brands to have innovation at their heart, with a focus on delivering high quality and great experiences at every turn. Even in today’s economy, consumers are looking for quality and memorable experiences, which is why innovative tech companies and start-ups have thrived even through tough times, as they focus on providing both. For big established brands in particular, borrowing from the start-up ethos of agile, insight-based innovation targeted at real-life problems that consumers face every day is an ideal route to bring about sustainable solutions. Tesla is a perfect example of how focusing on innovation with sustainability as a natural consequence, rather than the outright objective, has helped make things like electric cars cool in the public eye.
Ultimately, the sustainability game is one of sincerity and thoroughness. Brands deciding to embrace it will have to ensure that their initiatives respond to real consumer needs, are carried out consistently across their business, and communicated enthusiastically across every touchpoint, with a genuine commitment to a better future, and with the greater good in mind. The task is a daunting one, but in a world increasingly concerned with the impact that businesses have on the planet, it’s one that all brands must take on if they are to remain in the hearts and minds of consumers.