It’s time for brands to tell consumers their sustainability story

Lauren Winter-Beatty
Communicating the not so small print HERO

"Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour.” It couldn’t have been clearer when Greta Thunberg took to the stage at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos.

For the past five years, ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘purpose’ have been the brand buzzwords companies use to show they care about more than just sales. While for many that’s true, it’s also become a given. Communicating you have a purpose and care about gender and sexual orientation is the equivalent of McDonald's saying their chicken nuggets contain chicken.

Very soon, the masses­ – not just those in the know – will want to be made aware of all aspects regarding the future impact of each and every purchase they make. And, to stay in line with their competitors, brands are going to have to tell their sustainability story clearly and with confidence.

Fashion first

It’s the younger generation that defines culture for us all. So, when up-cycling became more than sanding down an old chest of drawers, it was time to take note.

Depop – eBay’s cooler, younger relation that allows kids to make money, save the planet and look fresh out of the 90s ­– gave a nudge to the fashion power players of what to do next.

And when fashion talks, the rest of us follow.

Danish cult clothing brand GANNI launched REPEAT, which encourages buyers to rent clothes: rethink the way you consume fashion, refresh your wardrobe and rent limitless pieces while making a solid commitment to our planet. Meanwhile, fast-fashion retailer H&M is keeping ‘green’ consumers happy with its Conscious collection. And luxury fashion retailer NET-A-PORTER has launched NET SUSTAIN, a one-stop shop for customers who want to buy sustainable and ethical products. This new platform highlights and celebrates brands which meet at least one of NET-A-PORTER’s attributes for sustainability which encompass human, animal and environmental welfare.

Many brands could suddenly find themselves on the back foot unless they change their footprint on the planet

Due to the higher costs associated with them, sustainable products can quite often be seen as a luxury purchase and, therefore, less accessible. The brands that commit to changes in this sphere need to make sustainability feel as easy as possible, less of a luxury and more of a norm.

Key to success

Partnering with respected authorities that can test your product and help your business change for the future, legitimately, is key. Brands would do well to have agencies such as Create SustainEcobooth and Trucost as part of their marketing mix when it comes to communicating their product. By estimating the hidden costs of unsustainable use of natural resources, brands are given the confidence to make effective change.

PR agencies, no matter how good, won’t be able to avoid communicating a product’s impact on the planet. Brands don’t have much longer to carve a business into two: the pattern of ‘remain yet sustain’ will become invalid.

We recently published the FleishmanHillard Project Z research finding that those aged 12 to 22 see sustainability predominantly as a need to be environmentally friendly. 42% believe sustainability is about protecting the planet and its eco-system from human-made harm. Most importantly, it’s ‘right here and right now’ where the majority want to draw the line. 63% don’t think sustainability is about planning for the future – it’s an immediate issue.

It's happening now

Overnight, we saw the power of consumers, with plastic straws disappearing from every cocktail around town and collapsible coffee cups swilling around in our totes. Many brands could suddenly find themselves on the back foot unless they change their footprint on the planet. For full transparency, will consumers require brands to provide guidelines on packaging for products like food? A brand could well be judged on the way it gives consumers information about the impact of its packaging, and the steps being taken to remove it completely – in full, on product, at point of sale.

If brands aren’t already thinking about their footprint, I’d say it’s too late. They have to start communicating (and consulting), or what they have to say won’t be relevant … the next generation aren’t taking any chances!