sustainable consumption

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Changing Consumer Habits

What's required of brands to alter how we consume, in order to reduce our footprint on the planet? MediaCom UK's strategy director has some answers

By Helen Brain

In part two of this series on how we can build new consumption models, I'm taking a look at how brands can change HOW people consume, so as to reduce the negative impact of their business on the planet and people. (See Part 1, on changing WHAT we consume here).

This is obviously an enormous area to cover, and I’m still playing with it in my head! So for now I'm focussing on how brands can improve how people decide what to consume; with the aim of increasing sales of the most sustainable choice in any category, and making it possible to enable consumption of an item on a repeated basis, thereby reducing the carbon associated with that item over time and use.

As a result, I think brands are going to need to invest in:

Product: Making it easy for people to make the most sustainable decision.

Business model: Selling customers the product they want, not the packaging that they don't.

Skill sets: Developing skills in experience design.

I can see at least two benefits for brands that invest in this shift; making it easy for people to make the most sustainable choice could help brands gain a larger share of the ever growing sustainably-minded audience, and creating new ways of consuming could create new revenue streams for the business.

I think we all know that whilst sustainability plays some role in the purchase decision, factors such as price, convenience and/or quality are still foundational. However, sustainability is an increasingly large part of the brand reputation equation, driving 49 per cent of corporate reputation now vs 16 per cent a decade ago. And the data shows that brands with a strong corporate reputation grow brand value at a faster rate than those with a lower reputation.

Brands need to do the hard work of making it easy for people to make the most sustainable decision.

Making the most sustainable decision easier will need to involve everything from increasing citizen carbon literacy (see Skys’ prime time Daily Climate Show or ITVs Climate Explorers work), introducing carbon labelling, which is seeing brands like Unilever, Oatly and Quorn invest, and normalising the use of sustainability comparison data - for example the Guardian have already added sustainability data to their tech reviews.

As people demand more and more of brands going forward, it is vital that we simplify the sustainable purchase journey to not only to drive sales, but to stay on the consideration list in the first place.

As an individual consumer however, even if you are very motivated to shop more sustainability it can be just plain hard work deciding what product or brand is the best choice to align with your ambition to live more lightly on the planet and its people. And this friction can contribute to the gap between peoples' claimed desire to shop more sustainability, and their actual purchase behaviour.

Citizens are aware of this gap, we all know we don't behave how we want to, which might be why 81 per cent of Brits want the UK government to prioritise making refillable products easier to buy as its main strategy for reducing plastic pollution. Change can’t take place if it's driven only from the bottom-up, we need top-down support and legislation as well.

Brands need to sell customers access to the products they want, not the full time ownership and packaging that they don't.

We need to create more sustainable ways of consuming the actual products being sold. Selling millions of single-use bottles of any product, when we could instead sell reusable ones makes no sense.

This is essentially what refill models like Milk and More, Loop, and net zero stores enable. And there's opportunity here - Good Club saw a 500 per cent increase in turnover in 2021, we have over 100 zero waste stores in the UK, and brands including Tesco, the BodyShop, Boots and Aldi all have growing refill offerings.

We can also enable sharing of products, so rather than producing millions of products that may be used only occasionally, we can produce fewer products and share them when they’re not in use. This is where rental and the sharing economy come into play.

The fashion market in particular is investing heavily in renting, with the online rental market looking at 10 per cent growth each year for the next 5 years. As is the auto market, where a privately owned car is unused for 95 per cent of the time!, and the DIY tools market - B&Q for example have recently expanded their partnership with Speedy, the tool rental service.

It's worth noting that this all focuses on the commercial models of sharing - however, we’re also seeing an explosion in community-led sharing which brands should be learning from e.g. the number of repair cafes in the Uk doubled between 2019 and 2020.

Community-led sharing may actually be the better model for citizens looking for connection and community, if not for brands looking to drive sales, and is something brands should keep an eye on if they want to stay relevant, and profitable.

Experience design is vital in changing how we consume.

Having a refill aisle is no guarantee that people will use it, or at least it's no guarantee that enough people will use it to make a meaningful difference or profit, and so we need to carefully redesign shopping experiences to make the most sustainable way the easiest, the most desirable and the most cost-effective for all.

We can see some brands doing great work in this area, for example think about how easy it is for anyone, even someone new to London, to hire a Santander bike. Or look at the growth of Olio, an app that allows people to easily share unused food with their neighbours. OLIO users have shared 25 million portions of food (equivalent to taking 75 million car miles off the road) and three million non-food items. It solves a genuine problem, it’s super simple to use, and their recent funding round shows that it's very possible to be a successful business and create a better future for people and the planet at the same time.

The partnership between Natwest and CoGo is also really interesting. There are plenty of apps out there that will allow you to track your personal carbon footprint - but using them means adding another app to your life, which you may well forget to use. However, by partnering with Natwest and allowing people to view their carbon footprints alongside their financial activity, something we do almost every day, these two brands are taking friction out of the process of measuring, understanding, and reducing an individual's carbon footprint.

(It’d be great to find and share more case studies of brands doing well in this space, so please share any examples you might have :-) )

So that's where I’ve got to so far - if we want to change HOW people consume, to reduce our negative impact and increase our positive, then we need to adapt and innovate in three areas:

Product: Make it easy to make sustainable choices when shopping

Business model: Invest in creating and testing new business models

Skill sets: Educate ourselves in experience design to drive change at scale.

Helen Brain is the strategy director & joint head of social change at MediaCom UK


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