Welcome to part II of our exploration of the conscious consumer. In part I, we tracked the roots of this demanding new mindset, one that is forcing brands to show us they care about the planet and demonstrate it single-mindedly.
We asked: “In the future, how will brands stand out with an eco-agenda and what impact might that have on our buying behaviour?”
As the old saying goes, if you walk in the footprints of others, you won’t make any of your own (low carbon or otherwise). So, to answer our question we investigated evolving consumer attitudes to reveal three conclusive areas brands can focus their energies on.
Focus 1: Brands must be brave enough to lead by example
The rise of plant-based diets and our collective horror at the plastics problem are now permanent fixtures in the mainstream cultural conversation. According to Global Web Index, over half of US and UK digital users say environmental concerns impact their purchasing behaviour. With that comes publicity and pressure. Some sectors have already been hit with a truckload of scrutiny, in particular the CPG (consumer packaged goods) category.
Even those seemingly ahead of the curve are not immune, as fashion brand H&M has found to its detriment. On 2 August, Dezeen reported that the Norwegian Consumer Authority has accused the brand of ‘greenwashing’ with vague marketing statements around the sustainability of its Conscious collection.
There is a target firmly pinned to the back of fast fashion and the snipers are starting to take pot shots. In February, the UK government’s Environmental Audit Committee published its Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability report: a harsh look at the environmental and social cost of the fashion industry. It concluded that, “The government’s recent pledge to review and consult on extended producer responsibility for the textile industry by 2025 is too slow.”
With distracted, cumbersome governments slow to legislate, it’s up to corporations to lead by example. It’s a tough call for brands to make - especially in women’s fashion where success relies on following changing trends to meet demand - but they might not have a choice. By 2030, consumers will be putting pressure on them to deliver sustainability - or they’ll simply stop buying from them.
One such leader is Inditex Group - the third largest clothing company in the world according to Forbes - and parent company of the mighty Zara. In July’s shareholders’ meeting a public pledge was made to ensure that 100% of the cotton, linen and polyester used will be sustainable, organic or recycled by 2025. By 2020, it hopes to have eliminated all plastic bags from its retail outlets. And beyond that? Well, as Inditex chairman and CEO Pablo Isla sagely observes, “sustainability is a never-ending task…” Time will tell if they can meet those targets and continue to lead by example.
Focus 2: Brands must make conscious purchases affordable for the majority
So, will we give up cheap t-shirts in return for being kinder to the planet? It’s questionable when statistics show that less than half of consumers who claim to be eco-conscious bother to research their fashion choices before buying.
A lot of it comes down to our individual personal commitment to sustainability. Maybe you can identify with the 55% of conscious consumers who are concerned about the environment but taking minimal action?
You’re not alone, but to further complicate this inertia comes a growing unwillingness to pay a premium for green(er) products. Is it possible to be mean and green? To meet the challenge, brands must put sustainability within the grasp of even the laziest armchair eco-warrior on a budget.
Take, for example, the recent launch of Cif’s Ecorefill cleaning spray: a concentrated refill you top up with water, attach to your old spray bottle and away you go. Parent company Unilever claims it will slash single-use plastics, water-use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Priced at around the same as the normal bottles, that didn’t stop speculation around cost cropping up on LinkedIn. This exchange is a clear demonstration that consumers are not prepared to wear extra costs, instead expecting companies to absorb any extra costs they incur in efforts to be sustainable.
Commenter 1*: “Water, plastic, transport, taxes, production fees, several things that are involved just for the ‘size’.”
Commenter 2*: “Don’t worry the price will stay the same, for the consumer of course.”
It seems many of us can identify with being a ‘casual’ conscious consumer, characterised by a lack of pre-buying research, only noticing an issue when it reaches peak publicity and expecting affordable prices for sustainable products. The message to brands is don’t add another barrier to purchase. Make it easy for consumers to choose your product, by nudging that 55% over to buying your product with an affordable sustainable choice.
Focus 3: Innovate and educate the 'conscious consumer’ on what you've done and why it's beneficial
By 2030, we predict consumers will be on the front foot with their conscious credentials: information-hungry and downright demanding of brands. While we care deeply about the plastics problem, it’s a macro problem that for most of us lacks urgency on a personal level.
However, in the future, your micro environment is going to be your top priority. According to Foresight Factory, a whopping 77% of us are already expressing concern about the quality of the air we breathe. Managing the health impact of air pollution is a growing problem, which presents brands with an opportunity to solve it for us.
Companies that innovate then shout their story to the health-conscious masses are the ones who will win. IKEA has been quick to spot this. After some years working with the brightest minds in education, research and innovation around the world it has launched GUNRID, an air purifying curtain made from “a textile that breaks down common indoor air pollutants such as odours and formaldehyde”.
This is framed around the brand’s understanding of the danger posed by air pollutants and a deeply purposeful vision that everyone deserves to breathe clean air.
So, to recap, these are the three conclusive areas we believe brands need to focus their energies to survive and thrive under the watchful eye of the conscious consumer:
- Be brave enough to lead by example - like Zara.
- Make conscious purchases affordable and easy for the majority - CIF.
- Innovate and then educate the conscious consumer on what you've done and why it benefits them - like IKEA.
We know 2030 might seem like a long way off, but the best in the business always keep one eye on the horizon.
Niki Macartney is strategy director at Southpaw.