Think BR: Make sustainability the icing on your product's cake

Jonathan Weeks, director, and Laura Furniss, development manager, Ipsos MORI Marketing
Jonathan Weeks, director, and Laura Furniss, development manager, Ipsos MORI Marketing

With the likes of Unilever and P&G putting sustainability at the heart of what they do, brands have to start planning for the future now, write Jonathan Weeks, director, and Laura Furniss, development manager, Ipsos MORI Marketing.

Do consumers care how sustainable brands are? Maybe not now, but they will.

The power for change will eventually be driven by the consumer, but that means that companies should be acting now rather waiting for public pressure or decent government support.

Unilever is one of the companies putting sustainability plans right at the heart of their business with the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, has been pushing the company to the forefront of sustainability.

In an interview with the Guardian a few weeks ago he was reported as saying that he believes we are now entering a new era when consumers will stop buying products from companies they see are not behaving responsibly.

Unilever is not alone. Sainsbury's joined the company in launching the Consumer Futures 2020 research 'Scenarios for tomorrow’s consumers' in partnership with Forum for the Future.

Justin King, Sainsbury's chief executive, said: "Sustainability will continue to rise higher up the agenda over the coming years, so it is key that brands work to ensure they can respond to consumer demand.

"Being a sustainable company is not about box ticking, it's about future-proofing your business and building trust and brand loyalty that will last for years to come."

The results of the research have helped Sainsbury’s pull together its 20 by 20 sustainability plan (20 sustainability targets to be achieved by 2020).

The research also developed a toolkit which could assist other companies using the scenarios.

P&G also recently announced a new long-term environmental sustainability vision.

Predicting that by 2050 there will be nine billion people on the planet, P&G realised it needed to set a new company vision.

It ran design thinking workshops which included work with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Its vision now has some long-term product end-points, which include among others: using 100% renewable or recycled materials for all products and packaging, having zero consumer waste go to landfills, and designing products to delight consumers while maximising the conservation of resources.

How do companies start engaging the consumer?

Unilever’s Polman said some clear lessons have already been learned, such as that consumers will not buy 'green' products unless their performance is as good as others and they do not have to pay a premium.

"If our sustainable Lipton tea does not taste good or is too expensive, they will not buy," he said.

And as Polman pointed out in an interview with Sally Uren, deputy chief executive at Forum for the Future, Unilever products are being used by two billion people in the world, making this a big base on which to start encouraging people to use the products they produce more sustainably.

Unilever introduced its five levers for change a few weeks ago.

It is an approach to help motivate people to shift to more sustainable behaviour and make sustainable living more commonplace.

The five levers are:

  1. Make it understood.
  2. Make it easy.
  3. Make it desirable.
  4. Make it rewarding.
  5. Make it a habit.

Polman is clear in explaining that there is not just one answer but the need for a 'totality of tools' to drive consumer behaviour.

Uren recently said the following on Unilever: "Given the absence of coherent government action, and consumer ambivalence on sustainability, [Unilever] is one of the few positive forces out there right now for sustainability. Other big brands and businesses would do well to follow its lead"

What is certain is that the majority of consumers will not sacrifice their product expectations in place of sustainability. 

And according to Amy Skoczlas Cole, eBay Green Team director: "If we really want sustainability to be mainstream, we need to lead with messages that consumers do care about - style, price, function - and let sustainability attributes be the icing, rather than the cake." 

Whatever your personal views are on sustainability, or any cynicism you may have about the drive behind company sustainability plans, one thing remains certain: consumption behaviour has to change, and fast - whoever ends up driving this forward.

Our population is now at seven billion, we reportedly consume 30% more resources each year than our planet can replenish, and in 30 years it really could be the end of the world as we know it.

Jonathan Weeks, director, and Laura Furniss, development manager, Ipsos MORI Marketing  

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