Over the last year, many of us have become much more conscious of the way we shop, consume, and dispose of everyday items. There have been countless catalysts for this groundswell of support for environmentally and socially responsible choices: wildfires ravaging the US and Australia, the voices of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, fast fashion giants being exposed for under-paying garment workers, and the pandemic shifting our focus to supporting small, local businesses over big brands.
One thing we can be sure of is that most of us are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic much more conscious as consumers than we were before – as recent research from Kantar discovered. Yet the reality is that changing consumer habits is still only a drop in the ocean. Real change will only come when the world’s biggest businesses step up to the plate – but many of the actions they are focused on now are too little, too late.
The sustainability state of play
It’s not that we shouldn’t praise companies like IKEA for launching recycling and buy-back schemes, or fast fashion brands like H&M for inventing technologies that make clothing from recycled and recyclable materials. We should – every action is a small step towards achieving a more sustainable future. But it’s no wonder big brands are constantly coming under fire for ‘green-washing’ of late – frankly, these actions are nowhere near enough.
What’s needed is a complete overhaul, from start to finish, of how a business operates – no matter its size or scale. To do so in a way that creates the most value means grounding sustainability in what consumers want and need. But where most businesses are missing a trick is by focusing on what consumers are looking for right now: reduced emissions, recyclable packaging, recycled materials, and basic workers’ rights. This is why we’re still so far behind where we should, and could, be.
Businesses should be leading, not following. Rather than focus on what consumers care about today, we need to dust off our crystal balls, and ask: what will consumers care about in 5 years, or even 20 years’ time?
Predicting the future
We don’t have to dream up a utopia to imagine what will drive purchases in the not too distant future. It’s simply about bringing all the actions that businesses are taking now, together. Take chocolate bars, for example. Soon, we won’t just be choosing chocolate for its flavour – we’ll be choosing brands who make their products ethically, and who stand for something more than just profit – and of course deliver on cost and taste too. One brand already making waves for this is Tony’s Chocolonely, whose mission is to make chocolate “100% slave-free” – although even they have come under fire recently for potential issues with manufacturing partners.
Brands should be striving for an entirely ethical value chain narrative – one that goes far beyond incremental actions, and brings everything consumers care about under one roof. Sticking with our chocolate example, this might start with the provenance of the cocoa bean, and the absence or presence of palm oil, harvested from biodiverse forested land, in the product itself.
Moving on to production, the use – however ‘hidden’ – of child or slave labour, or workers not paid a fair living wage for their work, is next up. The water footprint is next, a growing issue in the consumer consciousness – both in terms of how much water it takes to manufacture a product, and whether products are made in water-stressed areas of the world, only to be shipped to water-rich areas. Then, it might be how much plastic and recyclable material is used in the packaging, and the carbon miles and emissions it takes to ship the product to where it’s sold.
It’s not only consumer goods where we can imagine this soon becoming reality, either. In transportation, consumers will soon be less focused on finding the cheapest fare to get from A to B. Instead, the conscious traveller will choose electric vehicles, or electrified public transport – and be offered loans or incentives by businesses or governments to do so.
In financial services, there is an opportunity for institutions to broaden their product portfolio around new ‘sustainable’ loans, mortgages, pensions, or insurance. By attracting conscious consumers, banks benefit from more customers with a lower-risk profile – those driven by long-term value over short-term bargain. All of this is a win, win, win for customers, for businesses, and for the planet.
Putting it into practice
The good news is that there are businesses out there who are already leading the way. Scottish gin producer Dunnet Bay Distillery, for example, integrated sustainability into its growth plans. It wanted to make its packaging more circular, but knew that consumers need easy, manageable steps to actually go through with recycling. Beyond designing new recyclable packaging, it worked with Royal Mail to make recycling empties as simple as posting a birthday card. In the process, it reduced costs, carbon emissions, and consumers’ own carbon footprints.
Likewise, the conscious consumer of the future won’t only have a recycling-first mindset, but will actively seek out alternatives to plastic in the first place. Businesses like Notpla are already ahead of this curve, having created a machine that grows a seaweed-based plastic alternative – flexible, biodegradable, and even edible – to prevent up to a billion plastic bottles reaching the ocean every year. Innovative business models like these will not only transform how we eat, drink, and live for the good of the planet, but will soon become second nature to increasingly conscious consumers.
Making this a reality
Starting with what customers want is central to any business strategy – you don’t need an MBA to know that. But when it comes to sustainable business, looking ahead is critical – after all, living in the present is what has already put the future of the planet and its people on thin ice.
Keeping an ear to the ground on what conscious consumers are looking for, and predicting how these desires might grow and adapt, is the key to building a future-proof business. Now, it’s not enough for leaders to only guarantee that their business stands the test of time. They need to guarantee that the planet and its people do too.