How brands can gear up for sustainability going mainstream

Photo by Kai Pilger from Pexels

Sustainability is nothing new. But in 2019, sustainability will go mainstream and influence more aspects of our lives than ever before. In the past few decades, it may have only been discussed by specialists who worked in the sector, but it is now part of our general conversation and affects where people buy clothes, how they recycle and whether or not they eat meat.

The UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report published in October 2018 showed the urgency of change needed to avert global crisis. At the current level of commitments, the world is on course for a disastrous 3C of warming. Many of the widespread actions needed are aimed at government level, but there is so much other ‘noise’ in the world of politics. The UN itself identified that political will is the final barrier to achieving the shifts needed. According to Jim Skea, co-chair of the working group on mitigation, “We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can.”

With our politics, and media, being distracted by Brexit in the UK and Europe, and with the Trump administration in the US in climate change denial, consumers have started to take the lead themselves. It is now time for brands to reconsider sustainability, not as a CSR add-on, but a central pillar to appeal to this growing desire from consumers.

According to recent data from GlobalWebIndex, people are now looking to themselves to take responsibility for the future of the environment; 70% of people agree that individuals should take most responsibility, followed by manufacturers (52%) and then government (50%). Awareness of the impact of our throwaway culture on the environment is growing following high-profile programming like Blue Planet 2. We believe that attention needs to, and will, turn to other areas beyond plastics such as ‘fast fashion’.

According to Statista, awareness of the sustainability issues with fast fashion is low, with sustainability currently ranking fifth (behind quality, value, price and brand) in importance when choosing clothing. According to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, British shoppers buy far more new clothes than any nation in Europe and are buying twice as many items of clothing as they did a decade ago.

The solution is to shift from a linear economy (make, use, dispose) to a circular economy in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible, then recovered and regenerated at the end of their service life. Some brands are already making strides in this area. Patagonia makes polyester fleeces with recycled plastic bottles and H&M has its garment collection scheme, and ‘conscious’ sustainable style range, but this type of offering needs to shift from a single range to the mainstream in order to meet consumer needs.

With 35 million items of unwanted clothing dumped in UK landfill in 2017, an alternative way to tackle fast fashion could be to rent clothing. Waste charity Wrap identified leasing as an innovative business model that gives clothes a chance of a longer life while reducing material use and emissions. A recent survey by the Westfield Shopping Centre in London suggested clothing rental would become a key future trend. In the US, ‘Rent the Runway’ has had strong success with leasing. This will require a huge behavioural change, but with awareness growing this might not be too far from mainstream in the UK.

The gap between intentions and action is a common behavioural challenge, with the biggest barrier here being difficulty. Our work with Wrap on tackling food waste in the hospitality and food service industry has shown us that even with great intentions, many lack knowledge of how to turn those intentions into action. For commercial food waste the first step is to measure your waste, then you can act accordingly. The difficulty barrier will change in other sectors – it could be lack of information, lack of availability or cost.

The opportunity for brands is to embrace the mainstream interest in sustainability, be transparent and make it easier for people to adopt more sustainable behaviours. Brands that embrace this will be the winners in the future. Unilever has shown that supporting sustainability doesn’t have to impact profit.

Behaviourally a ‘fresh start effect’ takes place in the new year. I for one am making a new year’s resolution to make the most of the clothes I have in my wardrobe and pass on those that I don’t need. Brands can be part of consumers’ fresh start by going all out to embrace mainstream sustainability in 2019.

Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner at 23red

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