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In a season of excess, industry leaders consider how to keep sustainability top of mind
Christmas may well be the most wonderful time of the year. Yet when it comes to overconsumption and waste, Christmas can bring with it a pile-up of unwanted presents and an excess of food. Stocking up is a festive tradition, yet one that might be as well passed its used-by date as the food waste it generates.
According to a survey from Tesco, more than a third of people want to be more sustainable. Yet when it comes to actually making sustainable choices history tells us that there remains a ‘say-do’ gap in how shoppers behave. Data from American Express shows that consumers are happy to spend more on gifts that are ‘green’. Yet the reality remains that as inflationary pressures continue to bite, the lure of Black Friday deals mean that this shift to sustainability all too often gets lost in the realms of ‘good intentions’.
The faster, cheaper disposable model of marketing is increasingly at odds with a society grappling with the climate crisis. Yet with consumers facing huge pressures, both economically and emotionally, should brands be doing more to make sustainable shopping choices both easier and cheaper? With this in mind, we asked experts if brands need to shoulder more of the burden for creating more sustainable shopping habits this Christmas and take the pressure off consumers?
People behave more sustainably when it’s not just an abstract win for the environment but also a personal win. Christmas pain points offer opportunities for brands to deliver a sustainable benefit to people. Here are three examples:
In the midst of a cost of living crisis, it's crucial to acknowledge that brands hold a dual responsibility: not only to champion sustainable shopping habits but also to provide choice and quality for all budgets. Striking the delicate balance is crucial - encouraging more sustainable choices without isolating those facing financial challenges.
The good news? Sustainability often aligns with finding value, and this is an area where brands can make a significant impact.
Take eBay, for instance. We've worked together to shift the conversation from merely buying to "buying better than new." This concept embraces both environmental consciousness and economic prudence.
Brands can play a pivotal role in steering consumers toward choices that are not only eco-friendly but also financially accessible. By promoting these alternatives, brands can alleviate the pressure on consumers, making sustainable options accessible to everyone.
Brands play a crucial role in promoting sustainable shopping habits during Christmas. By integrating sustainability into their ethos and utilising their platform, brands differentiate themselves and attract conscious consumers.
Through their extensive reach and influence, brands should leverage their platforms for genuine change. Simplifying brand offerings at Christmas can enhance the positive environmental impacts too, by encouraging reduced consumption, mindful purchases, support for local communities, and product longevity. Authentic sustainability action not only fosters transparency and trust, it sets the stage for collaborations that amplify impact. Because this is a joint effort, where customers also play a crucial role, whether by participating in recycling programs, or embracing 'take-back programs,' they are key to meeting sustainability objectives set by brands and society.
This Christmas, the call is for mindful indulgence with environmental awareness increasingly at the heart of our celebrations.
Most consumers aren’t really under pressure to be sustainable, but can brands help to encourage better shopping behaviours? Probably and critically, it would make them different too. How refreshing it would be if Boots ditched its 3 for 2 junk offers, or if Sophie Ellis-Bextor made her own Christmas cards instead of burning them in an M&S ad. Instead of BOGOF deals, why not "Buy One, Give One"?
Most Christmas campaigns promote over consumption and indulgence not giving, selflessness and togetherness. But what do you expect from the biggest moment in the calendar of consumerism? The reality is that in the face of the highest cost of living crisis since the 1940’s – most consumers just want good value, and a half decent break from work and most brands just want to survive. Maybe Christmas 2024 will be the moment brands get back to being different and see sustainability and responsibility as part of their creative strategies.
We all know and love Christmas for the festive but frivolous season it is - with a tendency to dig into our wallets for a lot of ‘why not?’ spontaneous spending. But with current world affairs, brands do need to be self-aware of consumer realities.
Belts have been tightened on both sides, and advertising during this time is rife with the pressure to participate - both as a brand and as a consumer. Ultimately, it takes two to tango.
Where brands can do better, they should. Not only do they need to think about their sales messaging, but how that complements the lifetime value of the product they’re promoting in return for the lifetime value of that consumer too.
We live in and perpetuate a consumerist landscape. All the work we do shows consumers how we're the brand for them, which means we’ll never encourage them to stop spending. And while it might not be brand's 'responsibility' to ‘shoulder that burden’, they do have to respect the consumers they’re trying to engage.
Of course, it's high time for brands to step up and play a more significant role in promoting sustainable shopping habits this Christmas. As consumers, we often find ourselves navigating the complexities of making environmentally conscious choices during the festive season. Brands, with their influence and resources, can make a substantial impact by easing this burden.
In my view, it's about redefining the relationship between brands and consumers. Brands need to embrace their responsibility and proactively bring people along with their sustainability journey. Robust green claims that talk to people on their terms, in a compelling way, are so important. And so much more effective than using wooly or misleading terms like ‘carbon neutral’. By doing so, brands can not only contribute to a more sustainable shopping experience but also set a positive example for others to follow.
I’m also keen for the advertising industry to lean into our collective responsibility around reducing unnecessary consumption. The French government is currently running ads encouraging people to buy reconditioned, to repair, or to hire goods, and ITV’s eBay x Love Island campaign was one of the most talked about this year. It’s time for us to have a sensible discussion about how we can lend our voice to being genuinely part of the solution.
This Christmas, a collective effort from brands and advertisers to champion sustainability can create a ripple effect, making the holiday season both joyful, environmentally conscious, and affordable.
One word, YES! Let's be real, brands have a massive influence here. They can't just sit back and watch consumers struggle to make green choices. It's time for brands to take charge and make a real impact. We're talking about clear labelling, cutting down on unnecessary packaging, and getting serious about eco-friendly production methods.
This isn't just some corporate checkbox; it's about brands recognising the power they have to lead the charge. It's time for a shift where brands actively push for sustainability, making it easier for consumers to make better choices. Let's ditch the greenwashing and get serious about making a positive impact.
Committing to and investing in the circular economy? For example brands like Finisterre encourage customers to send in pre-worn coats and they will repair and refresh before sending back to you. I have just done this! It’s awesome!
Sustainability needs to be a shared goal: it requires buy-in from all parts of the supply chain. A large part of the emissions resulting from shopping, especially in peak periods, come from logistics, so reducing the number of products that are ordered only to be returned has a tangible impact on emissions. Consumers have to make more targeted purchases, and brands must enable it so that people don’t need to buy multiple variants.
Digital solutions that enhance the Customer Experience (CX) can have a significant impact here, and retailers should focus on ensuring the purchase always fits the customer needs. Getting this right means retailers need first to understand their customer. In apparel this can be through understanding body shapes and preferences to match them with their perfect fit, as evidenced by the rise of virtual fitting rooms and virtual assistants that provide transparency on sizing and styling. In goods, this can mean leveraging AR technology to allow customers to explore the product in the context of their home.
Beyond the returns issue, encouraging meaningful and treasured product purchases helps to reduce the number of goods that end up in landfill. Brands can utilise emerging AI technologies and modern production methods to create personalised and individually tailored products that turn into cherished gifts.
Ultimately, improving sustainability is about connecting the consumer with the right product for them, and that starts with developing a deep understanding of who they are and what they are searching for. This investment in digital infrastructure and features can greatly enhance the customer experience while making operations more efficient and rewarding.
Absolutely. And it is very much the case for Christmas as one of the most consumption-heavy times of the year, but it should be carried over way beyond the festive seasons.
Research keeps telling us that most consumers don’t -want to- think about sustainability because it's overwhelming. But consumer studies also highlight that they are increasingly looking at brands to help them lead a more sustainable lifestyle.
The role of marketing has always been to create and drive demand, having an active role in shaping people’s cultures and behaviours. So, there is an incredible opportunity to use brand strategies, behavioural science theories and intervention frameworks to positively shift lifestyles and drive sustainable demand.
As marketeers, we should start normalising sustainable consumption and behaviours by capitalising on what we do best: making the sustainable option more attractive and desirable so it’s the obvious choice for consumers.
But for this, we need to reframe sustainability: from aspirational and unattainable to relatable and accessible. By tapping into consumers’ basic needs and identifying where the brand could be useful, we can nudge towards more sustainable behaviours.
Spreading sustainable behaviours can take many forms – promote carpooling, recycling, and selecting seasonal foods; encourage spending more time outdoors; or creating a sense of community and belonging.
An example is Co-op Christmas campaign. A series of community-focus films in an authentic way to make a difference by encouraging customers to donate their member wallets to local causes, where Co-op will match the donations.
66% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products and services. 66% business leaders disagree*. So people are ready and willing to spend more, we just aren’t making it appealing or accessible enough.
I write this at the height of Black Friday mania. Buy now or miss out, buy now pay later, the message is loud. There are those who are taking the opportunity to encourage conscious consumption – eBay’s Better than New push for preloved and Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This campaign for repair and reuse – but not all brands have circularity in their business model, yet.
The job for brands is to be honest with themselves about how they can help. Push too far and you end up greenwashing. Don’t go far enough and you are complicit in the seasonal contribution to landfill. Working with the likes of Kellanova and Coca Cola, we have shifted the conversation from brand comms to brand behaviour through packaging, product and experience.
We are taught to see strategy as sacrifice and promoting more conscious consumption may well mean we sell less high margin, shiny new units now. But this quarter’s record sales will cost brands in the long term. Fast forward to 2030 and Gen Z will represent nearly 30% of the world’s income. This is the generation that calls time on greenwashing (88% of Gen Z don’t buy ESG marketing claims) but will pay more for brands who walk the walk (73% of Gen Z).
Best get a move on...
I’m always hesitant to say that brands SHOULD do anything when it comes to bearing the burden of responsibility for the choices made by consumers. We all have personal agency after all.
Brands are stuck in between a rock and a hard place. It is a key trading period that shareholders and the City keep a hawk eye on, when they are under pressure to deliver strong performance; evident in recent headlines showing in a shift towards profit over purpose, with ASOS ditching DEI as part of their bonus evaluations, to focus on the financials instead.
We can’t ignore the fact that brands do shape culture though, and have a responsibility for chasing growth healthily, not at the cost of society or the environment.
Consumers know this too and expect brands to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to larger issues, so that they can make smarter choices by default.
While consumers will inevitably trade some of their ethics to save a penny during a financial squeeze, conscious consumption also trumps conspicuous consumption in these moments.
Unlike before, sustainability is intrinsically connected to that notion now and 72% UK adults believe it’s important for promotions to help people live more sustainably*.
To my mind it’s less a moral question about whether brands SHOULD do it, but more a financial question about whether a brand can afford not to, not just for the short term win, but ironically in terms of sustainable brand value too.
Since the pandemic we are much more aware of our fragile world, shopping with an attuned moral compass, buying products for a necessity, not a luxury, because we consider the environmental impact that it has on our world. As we approach Christmas, that warm fuzzy feeling grows, our conscience is filled with the festive spirit, our nation is ready to spend.
Brands shouldn’t take advantage of this, they should discourage impulse buys and throw away plastic gadgets and instead embrace the festive season by giving something back. Wouldn’t it be great if they offered more sustainable products, or set aside all their Christmas profits to environmental charities?
As we advertise this Christmas, we all have an obligation to change the way shoppers purchase, because Christmas should be about that wonderful festive feeling, which no amount of money or gifts can buy.
Unequivocally, yes. The change we need to meet global sustainability goals needs to happen at scale, and brands have an important role to play. It’s human nature that we care about what’s in front of us - and this year, by and large, for consumers it will be about making ends meet and providing for loved ones. And of course there’s nothing wrong with this, nor should we expect anything different. Brands, organisations and governments have the power to influence consumers positively and at scale - they must create the conditions, provide the options and lead from the front.
It makes business sense, too. While there remains some mismatch between what consumers say and what they do, we are moving towards a tipping point, whereby those that have consistently prioritized creating sustainable products, and promoting more sustainable shopping habits will get ahead (while practising what they preach, of course). We’ve seen great ambition from many brands who are leading this way. Those that maintain their position and help to chart the journey to a more sustainable future will be the ones who reap the rewards. Those that don’t or deprioritise will get left behind.
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