Who cares about sustainability?

How big brands are doing the absolute minimum

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Source: pxhere

All market statistics refer to UK markets unless otherwise stated

It’s hard to scroll far through any social media channel before reaching some environmental petition, picture of a sad orangutan, or apocalyptic prediction of the imminent genocide climate change will bring. Indeed, even Christmas ads focussed in on it, with Iceland’s effort featuring an orangutan left homeless by the destruction of its home for palm oil being banned. In my particular Oxford echo chamber, it seems like people care a lot about sustainability, so it’s confusing that it doesn’t seem like brands are really responding to it. A lot of people seem to care about palm oil and would pay slightly more for orangutan-death-free alternatives, but they’re just so hard to find (the effort of trawling through ingredients lists when you just want some mid-essay-crisis comfort food is often deal-breaking).

If people care as much as they say they do, then why has brand marketing not universally adapted? If brands all compete for buyers, why have so few cottoned on to the advantage of sustainability? Is it because consumers realistically don’t care about the environmental impacts of the food they consume (or rather that they care more about the price staying low?), or has there been some genuine lag in brand adaption?

When Ethical Consumer, a non-profit publication focussing on ethical consumerism, released their annual report on market trends for ethical products in June of this year, it seemed to suggest the latter. Leaning on survey results conducted by YouGov, they found that over 25% of all people who responded to their survey had avoided buying a product or service due to its negative environmental impact in the last year, a 65% increase since 2016. Market research by BillerudKorsnäs, a leading developer for sustainable packaging, suggested in 2017 that 72% of consumers worldwide are willing to pay more for products with packaging that brings sustainable benefits. Overall, analysis shows huge growth in the ethical market across most sectors.

The food and drink industry has seen a dramatic sustainability-shift. The meat-free market is now worth £0.65 billion, as more than 1 in 10 people are vegetarian (52% more than in 2016), and around 1 in 30 are vegan (an increase of 154% since 2016). All round, the numbers of people making sustainable swaps in their food shopping (whether it’s reducing packaging or cutting down on red meat), show a nation-wide, year-long veggie pledge mentality. Simple indicators of sustainability, such as Fairtrade or Rainforest-Alliance certification, seem to have a big sway on purchasing, with Rainforest Alliance-certified product sales growing by 24.3%.

In the fashion industry, recent attention and protests have driven up the industry for both ethical (19.9%) and second-hand (22.5%) clothing – with numerous high street brands now responding with their own “ethical ranges”.

Interestingly though, the biggest ethical market contributor isn’t wavy-garm clad vegans, but the ethical money industry. Worth almost £40 billion, it’s roughly the size of all other sectors combined, and has seen growth in investments (6.3%) and shares (9.9%) sales.

Overall then, we do generally care. And by we, I do mean mainly the younger generation. The Global Shapers Annual survey in 2017 by the World Economic Forum found that 48.8% of 18-35 year old respondents worldwide argued that climate change and the destruction of nature was the most serious global issue. We’re far more likely to be veggie and vegan, and generally more likely to check product packing for sustainability claims before making a purchase (according to The Nielson Global Survey on Corporte Social Responsibility, 51% of Millennials do this). The Ethical Consumers report also finds a gender trend, with women claiming to make more sustainable choices across all sectors.

So to recap: most people care about sustainability, and many adjust their consumer demand patterns accordingly. So why then, if demand for sustainability is increasing, have most main-stream brands not significantly reacted?

It seems that when there’s a clear-cut sustainable option like vegetarianism, buying second hand clothes, etc, people are generally taking it. The influence held even by simple signals of sustainability, such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance stickers, seem to show that people want to make good choices, but realistically can’t be bothered to research every product in their fridge or wardrobe.

So maybe if more of our choices were given an obvious sustainable option, we would flock to them too.

The 2015 Neilson global report seems to agree. Brands can advertise the sustainability of their products either by marketing social and environmental impact initiatives, or by making claims to directly evidence the brand’s sustainable connections. The claim-only tactic correlates in sales growth of 7.2% – far above the average for any other tactic – yet it is used by brands representing only 2% of sales.

There is a caveat here that smaller companies are more likely to be specialised in sustainability and hence able to use claim tactics. However, even so, it seems hard to deny many big companies are missing a trick. People really do want to make good choices, and are willing to pay for it. Isn’t this where capitalism is meant to step in?

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