Thought Leadership

Should brands be doing more to market sustainability in a more accessible way to consumers?

As consumers strive toward making more sustainable choices, the onus is now on brands and marketers to help facilitate this

Georgie Moreton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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The climate crisis is the single biggest issue that this generation faces and now is the time for action. Across every industry, businesses are looking at their carbon footprints, thinking more purposefully and issuing sustainability targets. The marketing industry must also play its part.  

Attenborough once said that saving our planet has become a communications challenge and it’s one that the marketing industry is well equipped to take on. Marketing plays an extremely important role in driving the sustainable agenda as an influence channel. Nowadays consumers strive to make more sustainable choices but it is within marketing efforts and clear communications that they can be empowered to do so. 

The enormity of the climate crisis can be extremely daunting for consumers who wish to play their part in combating the issue but are at a loss of where to start. Promises of ‘net zero’ sound great but are hard to understand without the right education and the issue is extremely complex. Audiences want to help make a difference and so marketing agencies and brands must facilitate this through clear, authentic communications. 

The best place to start is by starting, but as the crisis continues to escalate, now is the time for action. So, should brands be doing more to market sustainability in a more accessible way to consumers?

Becks Williams

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Creative Director

Given

We’ve come a long way in the last few years. Sustainability has gone from a niche, unglamorous corporate division to a shiny marketing strategy. Why? Because consumers demand and expect it from brands.

As the context has rapidly changed, communicating sustainability effectively has struggled to keep up. Sustainability teams are still busy compiling technical reports and marketing teams are now slapping 100% recycled logos on their products and combating accusations of greenwashing. So much so, the government’s regulatory body, the CMA, has had to intervene with legislation in the form of The Green Claims Code. At Given, we’ve always asserted that sustainability has to be an operating model for business, not simply a marketing strategy. 

Somehow, accessibly marketing to consumers needs to tread the line between these opposite worlds and take the best of both. We need to communicate the complex world of sustainability in a way that understands what’s important to consumers and drives action, without misleading or misrepresenting the brand’s true credentials. How? Sustainability and marketing teams need to come together, respect each other and forge a new path forward. 

Our new project, The Uncook Book - How to Unbake the Planet, is an experiment in fusing these two worlds for everyday consumers. Keep an eye out to see how we do.

Tom Moore

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Head of Retail

VMLY&R Commerce UK

The current focus on how individuals can lessen their impact on the planet is very convenient for corporations. We’ve seen a significant rise in brands communicating efforts they’re making to drive more sustainable products and operations. Commendable yes, yet these marketing efforts are still in service of selling more.

We know the only true way to sustainability is to 'consume within our means'. Brands are making great strides to help shoppers make informed choices about the total impact of buying decisions, not just on environmental aspects but on balancing their total consumption. There’s still far to go… 

Collaboration is a potent accelerator for progress. And sustainability should not be seen as a competitive advantage, but as an opportunity for better value exchange. If we get this exchange right - elevating ecological credentials alongside actions and education to create meaningful interactions between brand and personal impact, brands will build equity, customer base, and thrive.

But, we won’t get there unless we have better brand experiences. Learning happens best when we’re engaged and inspired. Matching planet focussed improvements and education with new types of ease and inspiration for shoppers will ensure people come to stores because it’s the ‘better’ all-round option.

Ellie Malpas

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Strategist

Media Bounty

The climate movement definitely has an inclusivity problem, even though the repercussions of global warming disproportionately affect BIPOC communities, and the process of transitioning to a new green economy will affect many with jobs in manufacturing and agriculture.

For marketers, it's key not to simply focus on a white and middle-class version of climate anxiety. Although most are worried about the planet's future, many groups in society have more immediate concerns in their everyday lives rather than the impending (but still distant) doom of rising temperatures. Can we really ask those who are sick, financially unstable, or facing discrimination to change their behaviour for the sake of an intangible problem that many won't live to see the full repercussions of?

A solution to this is to refocus the benefits of sustainable solutions on people's immediate lives. But, of course, this will vary greatly from brand to brand, and some categories lend themselves more easily to this approach.

Quality of product is a nice everyday benefit of sustainable products that can be refocused in this way. In fashion, high quality means more wear and saves shoppers the inconvenience of constantly buying more. Levi’s does this nicely in their ‘Buy Better. Wear Longer’ ad.

In short, the more that sustainable communications speak to people's everyday needs and concerns, the more accessible and arguably effective we can be.

Sam Bowen

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Insights & Strategy Director

Red Consultancy

It’s widely considered that the responsibility for driving sustainable action should rest 20% with consumers and 80% with government and business. The government’s long-awaited strategy on reaching net zero by 2050 has now been published, yet few businesses have anything substantial to show they’re serious about the planet. Out of the 17,000 sustainability-related stories we analysed at Red in the last three months, less than 1% were about businesses launching dedicated sustainability strategies for reaching net positive. Simple sustainability theory is clear: do the work on yourself before asking others to change. Those in the 1% category such as McDonalds, Pepsi, Mars, IKEA are truly leading the way. Most people want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly.

Households “highly concerned about the environment” are growing strongly according to Kantar. But despite this, the intention-action gap is still too wide. The only way people will change their behaviours is if brands genuinely step up; if brands fail to do this, they will cease to exist.  Behavioural economics tells us that people will choose more sustainable products over their regular choices when the perceived benefits outweigh the effort involved in making a different purchase. By making sustainable options more accessible, increasing clarity and driving reward - people’s habits will change. As John Grant, author of Greener Marketing says “the focus shouldn’t be on making normal products seem green but on making green products seem normal…” 

Barrows Global

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Jenna Bleloch

Sustainability Lead, Barrows Global
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Michelle Koller

Junior Strategist, Barrows Global

Jenna: Sustainability marketing is currently fashionable. However, it is largely unregulated so the phenomenon of ‘greenwashing’ is rife. This is when a brand conveys a false impression or provides misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Symptoms of ‘greenwashing’ include; no proof, vagueness, false labels, irrelevance, lesser of two evils, and sometimes even blatant lies.

Therefore, a huge responsibility lies on brands to report on sustainability initiatives with integrity and transparency. An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is the gold standard to accessible, transparent and comparable sustainability information. It is an objective report that communicates what a product is made of and how it impacts the environment across its entire life cycle. It is verified by an independent 3rd party and as it is a standardised assessment, consumers can then easily compare the environmental impact of similar products in terms of carbon footprint per kg or per product. Making this publicly accessible reveals the good and the bad and is an act of true sustainability.

We live in a world where the customer is king. Brands are there to serve their consumers and will inevitably optimise their product towards their target market. Therefore, maybe the real question is, should consumers be demanding that brands market sustainability in a more accessible and transparent way? Could this expedite a movement of accountability for treading lighter on our planet.

Michelle: We’re starting to see consumers' voices getting increasingly loud, but also reflecting on their own consumption habits. According to a recent EY report, more than half of consumers believe that they are doing their best to shop sustainably, but 68% demand brands to take the lead. 

When it comes to marketing sustainability, communication has to overcome the barriers of education, an increased need for trustworthiness, and accountability. The retail environment presents an opportunity for brands to overcome these barriers at the point of sale, a critical moment on the shopper journey. To make communication more accessible, brands and retailers should follow the basic communication principles by tapping into ‘System 1’ thinking (fast, intuitive, instinctive) that shoppers rely heavily on. Sustainability communication on the product and at the point of sale has to be quick and easy to understand, not overloading, and provide shoppers with a clear and transparent reason to believe.