The pandemic has left a mark on consumers. With resulting lockdowns increasing work and financial insecurities for many, we could have initially assumed that most would quietly drop our ethical and environmental concerns when shopping—however, in the last 2 years we have seen the exact opposite.
56% of consumers are now mindful of the environmental impact of their purchases and 67% said that they bought products that were better for the environment, even if products were more expensive.
Numerous reports and studies have shown that the pandemic has focused our minds on creating a better and healthier world. The way people live and work are different. How and what people buy is different. There has been a step change in consumer behavior:
• 60% of consumers are reported to be making more environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ethical purchases.
• Nearly 1 in 3 consumers claimed to have stopped purchasing certain brands or products because they had ethical or sustainability related concerns.
• Consumers want brands to take the lead, with 64% of consumers wanting brands to reduce packaging, 50% want information on how to recycle and 46% seeking clarity on sourcing of products.
• 61% of consumers have reduced their usage of single use plastics, which is still the most common way consumers are being more sustainable.
Action and resulting transparency are no longer optional—they are a must for brand longevity. Brands must respond to the pressure to change. We outline five key ways brands can adjust their approach to sustainability.
1. Clarify Communication
The onus of recycling has been pushed onto consumers and the confusion is real. Recycling (when done right) saves energy, reduces carbon emissions as well as air and water pollution. But the lack of recycling standards and the variability of recycling and collection practices across regions, countries and municipalities has created an opacity around recycling, which negatively impacts waste streams and operations.
Despite the rising interest in sustainability, recycling is often criticized as being confusing, complicated, and frustrating. More recently we are hearing the consumer tone markedly shift to it is misleading, fraudulent, and counter-productive, especially around plastics, which is starting to impact brand love and brand loyalty. Brands can help break down some of these barriers and simplify communication by:
• Adding overt reminders to clearly communicate what can and cannot be recycled, like Zephyrhills Water
• Leveraging standardized communication practices like the ‘how to recycle’ scheme to inform consumers on what packaging components are recyclable
• Applying digital codes to connect consumers to digital content that can provide more information around packaging and product sustainability
2. Sustainable Substrates
Plastic creation was never built for scale and as a result, predictions show we will have around 12,000 Mt of plastic waste in our landfills by 2050—the equivalent of approximately 666 full size blue whales! The severity of this is finally being seen. There is a rise in brands exploring sustainable substrates for their branded content, particularly in plastic laden categories.
We are seeing a huge rise in PCR materials, but with that comes its own set of challenges as industry supply is dependent on creation of virgin plastics in the first instance. As a result, consumers are generally confused as to whether this is in fact better for the environment—be it true, or not, perception is reality—and consumers still view this as inferior to infinitely recyclable materials. Opportunities exist for brands to explore:
• Replacing plastics with recyclable materials like bio-based paper or aluminum. We have seen great strides in plastic ridden categories like water, consumer health and pharmaceutical. Recently a bio-based pharmaceutical pill bottle was approved by the FDA paving the way for the future.
• Using renewable substrates that have high regenerative qualities and no negative impact on the environment such as seaweed and algae. Companies like Notpla and Scoby are paving the way with these new innovations.
• Using substrates that can be re-used or have a high recyclability rate, like glass or aluminum, to close the loop with packaging, like Dove Deodorant.
3. Carbon Claims
The pandemic has encouraged consumers to think about product value chains. From fashion to CPG’s and foodservice, companies worldwide are amplifying awareness around climate footprints. Some brands are starting to make carbon claims, front of pack, ranging from certifications to measurable counts.
• Develop your lifecycle analysis capability to enable quantification of carbon footprint from sourcing of raw materials through manufacturing, distribution, consumer use and product end of life, thereby moving toward carbon neutrality.
• Offer consumers access to product traceability and carbon footprint to increase brand love, like brands Oatly, Quorn, Unilever.
4. Sustainable Redesign
Brands are re-designing packaging to deliver an improved eco-friendly experience and are more impactfully communicating their support for the planet. Both are critical components to gaining consumer loyalty in today’s environmentally conscious world.
• Experiment with new innovative product lines, dedicated to tap into the eco-conscious market, leveraging sustainable substrates with high recyclability or re-use, like Gillette with their Planet Kind product launch
• Explore ways to incorporate packaging as a new consumer experience by getting creative with alternative substrates, like Glenlivet paving the way with their edible cocktail pods
• E-commerce has seen three years of growth in one and retailers and brands are exploring alternative packs for online sales, reducing size and materials used, and exploring reuse models that have a consumer and eco end benefit, such as P&G’s Tide
5. Business Innovation
Re-tooling business models to concentrate on sustainability is increasing, focusing on finding balance between establishing and retaining an emotive connection between consumer and brand, but moving to more sustainable methods.
• Move from a linear economy to a circular economy by exploring ways to recycle old packaging into new packaging, Brewdog have initiated ‘cans for equity’ to encourage consumer recycling and close the loop on their packaging and Absolut Vodka have used recycling to launch a ‘Come Back’ marketing campaign.
• Partner with refill & recycling services are gaining momentum with larger brands signing up to initiatives like Loop and Terracycle.
• Direct to consumer grocery services, like Misfit Market and Imperfect Foods has convenience at its core but there is also a huge sustainability benefit to eliminating or reducing packaging and food waste.
We all have a personal, moral obligation to alter the current trajectory. To get started, there are some immediate areas of focus for brands:
1. Understand where you are now – Conduct a lifecycle assessment of your current end-to-end manufacturing and transportation supply chains to understand your baseline.
2. Know what people care about – Listen to what your consumers, shareholders and employees are saying, leverage a materiality assessment to support.
3. Prioritize opportunities – Use the 80/20 rule and start by prioritizing opportunities that have the biggest impact. This isn’t a one-time project that will end, this needs to become engrained into standard business practice.
4. Look for “low hanging fruit” – start somewhere with easily accessible daily changes
5. Disseminate information the right way: Different audiences consume information differently and this needs to be considered when communicating & building awareness and transparency.
6. Do not greenwash: Consumers are becoming more and more eco-savvy and messaging will come under great scrutiny. Make sure any communication is backed by action and data.
By being future-thinking, organizations can change the landscape of content supply chains, creating a collective world where environmental sustainability is standard practice.
If everyone makes a small change, it will have a big impact. There is no planet B.
Read more about how SGK Consulting can help build your brand’s sustainability story, here.
About Hope Massey
Hope graduated Law and is Lean Six Sigma qualified and a Prince2 Project Manager & Prosci Change Practitioner. Hope has 7 years of experience consulting with blue-chip organizations. Most recently, Hope has served Bayer, J&J & SCJ to deliver efficiencies within their global graphic supply chains. Hope has also worked on key projects including environmental sustainability, major business change initiatives incorporating Asia outsourcing, process improvement, financial analysis & modelling, cost reduction & business restructuring.