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Creating more sustainable consumption models

Mediacom UK strategy director argues why sustainable consumption isn't just good for the planet, it also represents a source of business growth

By Helen Brain

Last year, I wrote a piece that outlined my hypothesis that in order to create a desirable and liveable future, we need to evolve consumption models to be consistent with that future.

Doing that means we need to change:

1. WHAT people consume.

2. HOW people consume.

3. What people do AFTER consumption.

4. WHY people consume.

Today I’m focussing on how we might change WHAT we consume.

There are a few obvious ways in which we can change WHAT people consume:

We can shift from high footprint products to low footprint products.

We can shift from using raw materials to reusing materials.

We can shift from shopping globally to shopping locally.

It's important to note that this shift isn't just good for the planet, it also represents a source of business growth, by growing or stealing market share and/or category size.

When it comes to encouraging consumption of low footprint products rather than high ones, consumers are heavily reliant on brands investing in innovation and new product development. And luckily, we’re starting to see lots of this, with the food sector really taking a lead - with oat milk, plant based foods, and lab grown foods, all showing great growth.

It's not just product development that we need however, to shift people at scale over to lower footprint products, we also need marketing to make these products desirable, normal, and familiar. For example; Oatly are famous for their advertising leaning into the lack of understanding around their category - and use campaigns like ‘Help Dad’ to increase penetration.

The mobility sector is another vertical driving huge change in what people consume, shifting from petrol and diesel cars to electric, and increasing accessibility of engine-free and shared transport as well. However, it must be noted that much of this change has been driven by legislation - the idea that consumer demand for low footprint products will drive change at the scale and pace we need, simply isn’t realistic.

We’re also seeing lots of growth in the ‘from-raw-materials-to-reusing-materials’ space, much of which is coming from innovative new brands with existing brands playing catch up. The fashion sector is doing well here - with new resale platforms launching all the time e.g. Vinted, Vestiaire, Depop, and Laced.

The food sector comes up trumps again as well - this time with products created from food waste (you have to try Rubies in the Rubbles’ garlic mayonnaise) as well as new access models from the likes of TooGoodToGo and Olio.

There are some existing brands getting into the reused materials space too - with the Adidas X Parley partnership being a good example. As an added bonus in these ‘unprecedented times’, there is also evidence that resale supply chains may be more resilient to economic and global pressures. Which brings us to the third way in which changing WHAT people consume can help decrease pressure on the planet - we can switch from buying globally, to buying locally.

This not only reduces footprint thanks to not transporting goods halfway round the world, but also helps to regenerate local economies and communities - with nearly 60p of every pound spent with a smaller local shop staying local vs 40p of every pound staying local when spent with a larger company.

Amex’s Shop Small campaign is probably one of the most well known examples of how marketing can persuade people to change their behaviour, and has shown real success with 70% of people saying the campaign has made them more conscious about making sure they shop at small businesses year on year.

However - we must be wary of thinking that a straight swap in every instance will fix all of our problems.

For example, we can't just replace the 1bn+ cars in the world with an EV without serious planning, because getting hold of the lithium and cobalt required for batteries requires energy intensive and disruptive mining to access.

There is absolutely no point switching out one bad thing just to go and destroy the planet in search of another - the bigger picture goal still needs to be an exponential change in how we live; however the above may help us pave the way.

I’m certain I’ve missed other ways in which we can change WHAT people consume, and there’s definitely more to pull out in my last point around the need for bigger picture thinking vs simple swaps - so please do share any ideas with me here.

Helen Brain is the strategy director and joint head social change hub at MediaCom UK.

This is the first in a part-2 series from Helen Brain.


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