Brands must make sustainability for the many, not the righteous few

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Consumers are not stupid. Anyone who's been in the advertising game for long enough will know that, and they will also know that underestimating customer expectations is a recipe for certain failure. Still, customers will be looking for the best alternative in accordance with their pockets, sometimes at the expense of their ideals.

So far sustainability has been a luxury that many consumers were not able to afford. Greenwashing could only make this worse during the pandemic, with brands only pretending to save the planet to win a larger slice of audience. Though some organisations have been pushing sustainability into the mainstream (Oatly, to name one), there is still a long way ahead. If we hope to truly save the planet, brands need to make sustainability for the people and enter the conversation in different ways – ways that are more approachable, human, and don't feel premium at all.

We reached out to David Stevens, Senior Strategy Director at Wolff Olins, to discuss the topic below.

Brands need to make sustainability for the many, not the righteous few

*With the restrictions and challenges brought on by the pandemic, everyone from the very old to the very young has had to make sacrifices over the past year. All of which makes the sustainability messages brands seem to be bombarding us with at the moment with particularly grating.

In a global pandemic, people have very little tolerance for greenwashing or self-important proclamations around safeguarding the environment with little real-world evidence to back them up. Lecturing people who have been stuck in their homes for a year on sustainability is not the way to win them over.

Two thirds of people in the UK say they are wary of communications from brands relating to environmental and social purpose because they feel most brands are not yet ‘walking the talk’, according to a new survey.

In the YouGov poll, the respondents noted clichés and confusing jargon in advertising and communications relating to ethics, community work and the environment. Buzzwords are the refuge of businesses with nothing real to contribute to the conversation. While our planet is dying, it seems brands are keeping themselves busy by pretending to save it.

All this is made worse by the fact that, for too long, sustainability has been a luxury that only the privileged few can afford. Organic and biodynamic food and drink. Locally sourced and made clothing. Vegan shoes. These products are the preserve of those able to pay a high price for virtue. And in turn, these kinds of products become a turn-off for regular price-conscious consumers who associate green with a premium.

But if the demand for more environmentally friendly services and goods is there, and we know it is, why can’t they be made available and attractive to everyone? Brands have the power to make sustainable choices mainstream. Thankfully, more are making the effort.

Brands like Oatly and OVO Energy are pushing sustainability into the mainstream because their focus on accessibility and affordability make it a gratifying and economical choice for consumers. 

But sustainable can also be desirable. Adidas is showing that a sense of humour married with iconic design can go a long way - not just normalising sustainable choices, but creating a big buzz around them too. The iconic Stan Smith is getting a remix this year in collaboration with none other than Kermit the Frog. “It’s not easy being green” is the catchphrase adorning the heel of the classic low-top tennis shoe which is made with 50% high-performance recycled materials.

Rather than boasting about being sustainable, brands are getting the hang of nudging millions into making greener choices. Take Greggs, whose vegan sausage roll was launched in response to public demand in 2019 after an online petition by Peta was signed by more than 20,000 people. 

Salesforce is a brand that’s making being greener easier to actually measure. It’s helping to track “green” metrics via a new app which lets Salesforce customers measure and analyse their carbon emissions across operations, including the equipment in their data centres and their employees’ business travel. 

Another strategy brands can adopt is to present green as more efficacious and better for you versus ‘synthetic’ choices. This is especially effective for brands in personal care, hygiene and childcare like Method, Ella’s Kitchen and The Abnormal Beauty Company, as consumers often select them for their good for their health benefits, as well as for the planet.

Whatever tactics brands employ, it’s clear that there’s now an opportunity to drive desire for greener products at scale - and to make sure they’re not just a luxury for a lucky few.

David Stevens is the Senior Strategy Director at Wolff Olins. Header image: Wolff Olins


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