Consumers want to save the planet. Two in three people now say they are willing to reduce their consumption by half to avoid environmental damage and climate change. The findings from the 2022 Healthy & Sustainable Living research
study by global insights and advisory consultancy GlobeScan showed that 65% of people now say climate change is “very serious.”
As Adam Kerj, chief creative officer at Accenture Song in the Nordics, told us last year in an interview about IKEA’s pioneering ‘CIRKULÄR’ sustainable retail project
, consumers “want and demand radical transparency, planet-first commercial models, value-driven supply chains and diverse representation. At the same time, they are used to on-demand delivery, and experiences tailored uniquely to them.”
It’s a conundrum that brands need to weigh up well before they get to thinking about marketing. “It is difficult to draw a future scenario, even more so considering that we live in a world where we brush our teeth with a bamboo brush while waiting for a package from Amazon that will arrive from the other hemisphere at our doorstep in less than 24 hours,” says LOLA MullenLowe copywriter Martin Petrik. “We are contradictory as humans, and we are also conflicting as consumers. And in that contradiction, the impulse of what we need to consume and our desire to survive has started, so place your bets.”
Advertising over the past few years has seen brands hedge those bets pretty blatantly, with each company trying to find its excuse to market itself to those who want to continue their convenient consumerism without further accelerating ecological collapse. “In recent years, sustainability has become synonymous with marketing effort, as most brands now make large commitments toward more sustainable practices across their business,” recognise Julianne Hudson, VP marketing science, and Kaleb Rupe, associate director marketing science at VMLY&R COMMERCE US.
The problem is that sounding green means people holding your practices to green standards. The spectre of greenwashing haunts every marketing briefing. “Most companies and CMOs know that they can’t advertise themselves out of solving our most urgent sustainability issues,” said Adam in the aforementioned interview. Accenture research
has also found that 88% of global executives think their customers are changing faster than their businesses can keep up, he noted. So, brands need to do something to help those customers behave more sustainably. “There’s never been more expectation on companies and brands to behave better, earn customers’ trust and take responsibility.”
Encouraging and empowering consumers to live more sustainably does help a brand. “Brands have benefited from sustainability efforts,” note Julianna and Kaleb from VMLY&R COMMERCE. “When CPG [consumer packaged goods] brands encourage shoppers to reduce, reuse, and recycle, brand relationship quality improves, including an increase of trust, loyalty, and overall satisfaction1.”
One low-effort shift brands can make is to educate consumers on the sustainable value of buying to last - suggesting the right (usually more expensive) product from the start, with the assumption that it needs to last longer. And in the current economic hard times, this makes even more sense. “As attitudes change and consumers see value in tech that doesn’t need to be replaced every couple of years, those brands that are likely to profit are those positioned to help people make the right choices for the long term and get the most from the tech they have, rather than always pushing the next big thing,” says Steve Kirk, managing director at M&C Saatchi Talk. “We’re seeing more tech retailers helping shoppers make better choices at the till, so the tech is right the first time and will last longer in the home.”
This is the case with Spanish designer Adolfo Dominguez, which has made firm bets on communication that invites us to ‘be older’ and to ‘think less about clothes, to think more about what matters’. Martin admires this positioning for the brand “creating a parenthesis within an industry that pushes us to constantly renew our closet against the clock.”
But brands can’t simply open themselves up to the criticism that they’re only placing the burden of sustainability on their customers’ behaviour. Businesses need to show real change in their supply chains and practices if they want to earn trust on sustainability. “Zero-waste manufacturing initiatives help brands pocket significant savings as well,” say Julianna and Kaleb, with companies like Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ reporting as much as $225 million in savings
Change your business to have a lower carbon footprint and you can tell consumers about that. You can find compelling ways to do so, but you’ll still only be telling, not demonstrating. That’s why IKEA’s ‘CIRKULÄR’ offers such a compelling model. As the launch campaign of a circular exchange, in-store and online, that allows customers to sell and buy used IKEA furniture in IKEA, it encouraged people around the world to save more than just money during Black Friday 2021. More than 155,000 pieces of furniture, globally, were received before Black Friday. They were then restored and resold at lower IKEA prices via ‘CIRKULÄR’. Anne Krogh, chief marketing officer of IKEA for Denmark, told us in October 2022 that it’s since become a sustainable service in 28 countries, “helping drive behavioural change in the home furnishing market, delivering to the IKEA business from the sales of pre-loved furniture and strengthening the IKEA brand.”
Adam demonstrated that he thinks the marketing power of this strategy lies in its long-term thinking. “We need to be truly integrating creativity, innovation and purpose into organisational culture, behaviours, product development and new commercial models,” he said. “We need to solve more, not tell more. Customers don’t care much about brands talking about lofty visions far in the future – they want concrete solutions and actions for how they can contribute to a more sustainable society today. “IKEA has always asked its customers to do a bit of the hard job themselves – to assemble their own furniture. But that act alone means that furniture becomes uniquely the maker’s. We applied this thinking to ‘CIRKULÄR’, asking the customers to take the first step. In a way, creativity is our universal Allen key.”
Building more sustainable thinking into the product or service offering of a brand has been spilling out across the fashion category for some years now. Martin from LOLA MullenLowe recognises the “cool things that some cool brands do to make this planet a much cooler place,” all of them “developed in a context in which, to be competitive, you have to be sustainable and in which ‘quality’ has taken on a new dimension, going from being ‘what is good for us’ to becoming ‘what is good for everyone’.” In this context, brands like Patagonia have been able to understand this new dimension of the concept of quality, and flagged it with initiatives such as ‘worn wear’ (that offer DIY tutorials to repair damage to your garments at home), ‘product care’ (a maintenance and repair service for the brand's items), or ‘recrafted’ (a line of garments made from other used clothes). ‘Close the Loop’ by H&M Foundation uses innovative technology, where the machine called ‘Looop’ cleans and shreds old garments, and then reworks the remains into new products that the customer can pick up the next day – all without using any water or chemicals. Martin also presents Wallapop and Vinted as two good examples of platforms that have managed to popularise the concept of second hand, adapting it to today’s digital ecosystem, “making it cool and sexy for the consumer, and managing to extend the useful life of thousands of items.”
But now, categories outside of fashion are cottoning on. Like IKEA, other brands are finding ways to build sustainable principles into what they sell and how they sell it. However the problem for consumers is that principles cost money. “These sustainability efforts that eliminate waste and redeploy resources come at a premium, or at best, a net neutral cost,” say Julianna and Kaleb. “Consumers are paying to be sustainable. LUSH has a well-regarded 'naked product' stance which eliminates packaging for example. But, it's expensive.”
Historically, sustainability claims have been focused on the individual impact a consumer makes on the environment, and less on the impact it makes on their wallet. But with the ever more value-focused consumer that the current climate is breeding, that’s becoming more of a risk. “Brands need to shift their sustainability claims to help consumers protect the environment AND their wallets,” say Julianna and Kaleb. “Brands have an opportunity to flip the traditional sustainable mantra on its head, making it more accessible and value conscious to consumers.”
There are ways to achieve this through innovation and product offering. Loop
(not to be confused with Loooop), a reusable packaging programme, is piloting the next wave of innovation in this space. Partnering with grocery stores, they’ve created a place where consumers can reuse packaging to refill their favourite brands. “Programs like Loop and VMLY&R COMMERCE India’s work on ‘Smart Fill’
help consumers connect the emotional aspect of reuse, while not adding incremental costs of purchasing,” say Julianna and Kaleb. “Consumers want more of this type of innovation, where both their wallets, and the environment, can benefit.”
In 2022, we saw multiple tech retailers moving towards building incentives through repair and refurbishment. Mobile phone network EE introduced ‘Hand me on handsets’, allowing EE customers to pass on their old devices to a family or friend, or trade in their phone, tablet or watch to securely refurbish or recycle, which, according to the brand, allowed for an average of £140 in savings. And, if buying new isn’t in the budget for someone, they extended their refurbished offering, allowing people to buy pre-owned handsets. The brand also launched repair services
across the UK, extending the lifespan of phones bought from them. While it’s clear that all of this could lead to fewer new pieces of tech sold by EE, the benefit to consumers’ values and wallets could well be a bigger brandbuilding power in the longrun.
“There is an interesting shift taking place in the consumer technology space, in which the ‘throwaway’ behaviour of shoppers is being challenged by retailers,” says Steve at M&C Saatchi Talk. “As many electronic devices are cheap to buy and easy to get hold of, most people don’t give a second thought to buying low cost items and then chucking them in the bin if they aren’t quite right or stop working properly. But, there’s been a surge in popularity in giving new life to old techy things, brought to the fore by BBC’s ‘The Repair Shop’, and further fuelled by the nation’s tightening of its purse strings.”
The UK high street retailer, Currys, has responded with its ‘Long Live Your Tech’ campaign, which aims to convince consumers to repair the stuff it’s possible to revive or to donate old essential appliances that are then reconditioned and given to social housing. It’s also incentivising shoppers to recycle old, broken tech with money off new electronics.
While pre-owned fashion has made sense to generations, tech and UX innovation are making it unignorable as a choice for the consumer with one eye on the climate crisis and another on their personal spending. People have always bought antique furniture, but IKEA is using creativity and commerce innovation to weave that circular economy thinking into its mass-market home interior retail model, for the planet and for the pocket. And while this thinking can be applied to many different kinds of business, it seems clear that having the shiniest new gadget doesn’t hold the cache it once did. Pre-owned technology is on the rise, as people accept they can live without the latest version of gadgets and look to cut costs. With brands such as BackMarket and Music Magpie reporting an increase in demand for refurbished technology, and many established high street retailers now offer reconditioned devices to buy online, tech could be the next quarter to integrate a make-do-and-mend mentality into both its offering and communications. With the right strategy and willingness to make real changes, it’s possible to imagine all sorts of brands heading in this direction.
1"The Relationship between Corporate Social Responsibility and Brand Relationship Quality: An Empirical Study of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods Companies" by Han-Wei Liu and Chia-Fen Yeh, published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2017)