How brands can take the effort out of making sustainable choices

There will come a time when buying into brands or products that are unsustainable will be seen as socially unacceptable as smoking.  A tipping point will invariably be reached when sustainable practices evolve beyond a manifestation of a CSR strategy and become inherent to the core purpose and being of a brand.  For now, and until we arrive at the juncture of sustainability as a hygiene factor, there remains an opportunity to credibly leverage the burgeoning consumer desire for brands to behave in a sustainable fashion.

The size of the prize is indeed considerable; but there’s just one problem. Unless sustainability is a seamless facet of a brand that requires minimal effort or compromise on the consumer’s part, the likelihood is that the majority will default to seeking out efficiency and value often at the expense of the very best of intentions.  The crux of the problem is that humans are complicated beings, who by their very nature will look for shortcuts, behave habitually (whether intended or otherwise) and who will often say one thing and behave in exactly the opposite fashion.

So, the real issue and question for brands shouldn’t therefore be ‘how can I credibly behave in a sustainable way?’, because of course all brands and businesses should be.  The burning question and the one that can determine whether a brand lives, or thrives, should be ‘how can I credibly and seamlessly behave in a sustainable way that demands little or no effort on my customer’s behalf.’  What brands shouldn’t be doing is demanding or forcing consumers to fundamentally change their behaviour, rather they should be helping consumers make good, sustainable choices, in a way that has little discernible impact on their behaviour, or indeed their wallets.

One way to uphold a sustainability ethos that asks for nothing from consumers in return is the one for one model. Fledgling British spirits brand Sapling have instilled this approach at the heart of their brand with a promise to plant a tree for every bottle of vodka purchased. It’s a perfect example of how a brand can make a commitment to sustainability in a very tangible and simple way that not only makes sense to the consumer, but can also act as a subconscious driver to encourage brand loyalty.  It’s also an approach which demands nothing more from the consumer other than to pick their product off the shelf instead of a Smirnoff or an Absolut, which in a commoditised category such as vodka is a key differentiator.

Another way that brands can take consumers with them on their journey to a more sustainable future is to evolve operational practices that spin out an engaging sustainability brand message without fundamentally changing the product in a way that the end consumer will notice.  With the anti-plastic juggernaut continuing apace, brands are increasingly altering or abandoning their plastic packaging altogether.  P&G have been championing this approach for at least 18 months, with household brands such as Fairy and Head and Shoulders ensconced (temporarily at least) within bottles made from recycled ocean plastic.

The halo benefits of these type of approaches are clear; they provide consumers with a sense of trying to make a difference without compromising on expected product quality or price whilst instilling the brand with goodwill and positive equity.  Ultimately it’s a win-win approach and it is those brands that adopt a soft sell, helping hand approach to behaving sustainably that will encounter the path of least resistance from consumers, the majority of which, for now at least, are unwilling to compromise value or efficiency for the sake of living a sustainable life.

BY ENGINEER Alex Beattie

alex.beattie@thevalueengineers.com