Is ‘sustainable’ the new buzz word?


Sustainability provides opportunity

People don’t always make choices that support sustainable ideologies. Consumers may opt for low-priced goods knowing that the product might not last as long, and that they may have to purchase a replacement at some point. People buy products that can be harmful to rain forests and their inhabitants, even though they might have sat through Attenborough explaining why it is so important to save these resources and lives. We have all done it — watched Planet Earth feeling sad for the polar bear who’s lost its mother, whilst scoffing chocolate that we know isn’t fair trade; sat in our high street PJ’s with the heating set on 22 degrees — guilty as charged.

However, according to a recent international study by Unilever one third of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good. One of the key points raised in the study shows that consumers are becoming more concerned with the ethical standpoint of their favourite brands. But is it enough for the brand to appear to be taking an ethical standpoint, or do consumers need to see that there are tangible changes being made?

Of course sustainability should be honest and tangible, for the sake of resources, the planet and its inhabitants. It should also be authentic to the voice of your brand. Patagonia is a brand whose ethos is underpinned by their position on sustainability, and it works because it’s true to the people who started the business, and that cascades through all of their work. Patagonia’s consumers are likely to be as eco-conscious as the brand, which is why they choose to buy those products; the company’s cause is as powerful as the quality of product. Sustainability is this brand’s story, and whilst that may not necessarily work for your brand, there are other companies who are building sustainability into their ethos and their products.

At the beginning of June Marks & Spencers launched Plan A 2025, it is an ecological and ethical business plan that covers things such as: making packaging widely recycled, selling more healthy food and all key raw materials they use coming from sustainable sources. It’s a big plan, it promises a lot and it covers many sustainable bases. M&S sees itself as leading the way, having been at the forefront of social change for some time; M&S was the first UK retailer to go carbon neutral back in 2012, they even aligned themselves with Oxfam and donate clothes that haven’t sold in their sales to the charity stores.

One of the most important sustainability issues I can see in the food world is that there may come a time when we can no longer make chocolate, this is a genuine potential issue — run to the shops now and stockpile for the chocolate armageddon! Divine, the fair trade chocolatier, is trying to stop the potential shortage through boosting sustainability through the workforce by increasing pay to farmers, they have also set up a cocoa company in Ghana allowing workers to have a 40% share in the business and profits. Divine also uses recyclable packaging and the factory where they make their bars is powered by sustainable energy. The tagline on their chocolate is ‘heavenly chocolate with a heart’ and inside the wrapper is the story of one of their cocoa workers and the company they set up in Ghana. The only downside is, you only learn about the good work they're doing once you've purchased the chocolate so you might bypass this brand not realising their commitment to sustainability. However, Divine is very good at highlighting their sustainable ethos through their social media channels, using relevant hashtags such as #fairtrade, #sustainablefarming, #palmoilfree and #environment.

Pukka Herbs has just announced a new range of ecological bamboo travel cups, which use a sustainable, pesticide-free bamboo. And they haven’t just gone for the eco factor, the cups look lovely too. Pukka also uses social channels to talk about their tea farmers in India, who work totally organically. The sustainable stance of the brand feels natural and honest, due to the product being one that is focused on taking ingredients from nature and producing a feel-good product. The language is full of positive and passionate words: “we hope you feel inspired to learn more about yourself and this beautiful planet we live on”, this language compliments a sustainable standpoint.

What the Unilever study also highlighted is that there is also opportunity within sustainability. More than 20% of consumers said they would actively choose a brand if their sustainability credentials were clear on packaging and marketing materials. This goes further than just saying consumers buy from brands they believe to be doing social and environmental good. It means that if you promote what you do in regards to sustainability, you may attract new customers from competitive brands who perhaps don't focus much effort on these areas.

To become more a more sustainable business may seem a little overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be complex. Take a look at what you could be doing better, for instance, if your product packaging isn’t biodegradable, could you explore avenues to change it? If your product is palm oil free, then tell peope abut it and make your product more attractive to consumers. If you could use more sustainable materials, then make that change also. It may be you can not alter your product, but what about how you run your business: recycle, use waste energy more efficiently, ensure workers abroad get a fair deal.

The most important thing is to be clear in your messaging so people understand that you are taking steps to become sustainable as a business, for the benefit of the planet and consumers. Once you have the right message, that sounds authentically you, use all platforms to tell people what you have done, and why. If you have a store, in your office, on packaging, on your website and through social media channels. It is really quite simple, sustainability is important it isn’t just a fad — so make change, find the right message, tell consumers.