Sustainability isn’t going anywhere, there are just new, emerging tensions

by Guest Contributor Dr Nicki Morley & Zoe Hazan | July 01, 2020

Dr Nicki Morley
Lead Innovation Consultant
Kantar, Insights Division, UK

Zoe Hazan
Senior Innovation Business Development Executive
Kantar, Insights Division, UK

Over the last few months many companies have focused single-mindedly on their response to the crisis triggered by COVID-19 but many of the trends apparent before the pandemic started are still apparent today and even accelerating. Sustainability is just one such trend, but it presents one of the biggest business opportunities for brands.

At the start of the decade, the sustainability agenda was nestled comfortably in the public consciousness. Mission2020, Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg were making headlines, businesses’ supply chains were going circular and purpose-driven initiatives were starting to be incorporated into marketing strategy. However, with a global public health crisis ravaging the world, it is undeniable that Covid-19 has temporarily knocked sustainability off the speaker’s podium. Fear of contamination may mean that we have provisionally swapped plastic-free shopping for pre-packed food – but our climate emergency has not gone away and neither has the consumer sentiment for change. So, how do we unlock sustainability opportunities in the current climate to build back a better and greener society?

It is important to note that consumers still care. 49% of consumers actively seek out companies and brands that offer ways to offset their impact on the environment vs 30% pre-Covid (Kantar Barometer 2020). Additionally, in a recent Mumsnet survey run in conjunction with Kantar, people place almost equal responbility on brands and national governments when it comes to sustainability.

What has changed is our collective context and this inevitably creates fault lines. For example, concerns around hygeine mean that people are being drawn to disposable products and single-use plastics. This was reinforced when Starbucks announced a ban on their re-usable cup sceheme and grocery stores across the USA reintroduced plastic carrier bags after a hard-earned ban. In the UK, the proportion of pre-packed bananas sold has risen by more than 10% since lockdown! (Kantar, FMCG Panel)

Panic not – as tensions and innovation are a harmonious pair. Real consumer tensions lie at the heart of every great innovation and these tensions as a result of Covid-19 are no different. Now is the time for brands to seek innovations to tackle these emerging tensions. Brands should explore how they can support the upkeep and uptake of more sustainabile habits, like community engagement, self-sufficiency and the slow of fast fashion, throughout the crisis and then encourage them to stick when emotional triggers pass.

The challenge many consumers and brands will face is the so-called Value-Action Gap – the space that exists between the desire to be sustainable and actually behaving sustainably.  To overcome this gap, marketers need to assess what fuels and frictions are inhibiting people to follow through and act sustainably. Say for example that you are motivated to buy items that use less plastic or reusable packaging. Fear of contamination and increasing financial concerns may stop you from opting for reusable. However, you may well have more time on your hands and an elevated awareness of conscious consumption. The job to be done here is to innovate in a way that capitalises on the fuels and reduces the frictions – to create easy to continue, meaningful and positive value propositions for consumers.

So, now is not the time to take your foot of the pedal when it comes to sustainability and understanding evolving tensions. Brands should follow in the footsteps of the almost proverbial legacy that Unilever have created – its 28 sustainable living brands are growing 69% faster than its other brands (compared to 46% in 2017) – and put sustainability at the heart of their growth strategy. Make no mistake, this isn’t a profit vs purpose trade off – sustainability is still a commercial imperative and innovation is key to unlocking the financial rewards. The question is - will you be part of the new normal or the new better?