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Gordon Young
Editor-in-chief at The Drum

Could a circular economy mindset help to revive trust in brands?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

There is a decline in the trust of brands and advertising. 89% of millennials trust recommendations from friends and family more than claims by brands. Earlier this year the Advertising Association launched a report called ‘Arresting The Decline Of Public Trust In UK Advertising.’ Even the president of the association himself said that it is trust or bust for the ad industry.’

Without trust, we lose the influence and power to change behaviour for the better. We, as creatives and storytellers, possess the power of influence to make people feel something, so much so, that they might change their behaviour for the better, and we absolutely can’t risk losing that.

More so than ever, consumers are considering company values when choosing product purchases. Everything from equality, diversity, and environmental impact are being scrutinized ever more closely. As a direct result, brands and organisations are inevitably having to take a harder look at themselves and shift their focus to make real-world changes not just through messaging but by affecting actual change. It’s not good enough to simply preach any more, brands have to be the force of good, inside and out.

We’ve already seen examples of brands making this shift. In 2018 Iceland became the first major UK supermarket to pledge to remove palm oil from all its own-brand foods, in a bid to halt the ongoing destruction of tropical rainforests in south-east Asia. You would have probably heard of or seen the Rang-tan’s Story that came out at Christmas that year. Despite the unfortunate ruling that the advert could not be aired on TV, it was a great success online. It wasn’t an easy journey for Iceland, though and there was a lot of backlash. They did, however, manage to reformulate 450 products, which now don’t use Palm Oil. That’s a real-world change.

Their campaign also pushed more ambition from the RSPO, whose members include plantation companies, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, financial institutions, and environmental and social NGO’s, to incorporate no deforestation into its new principles.

From a marketing perspective, this was a PR explosion with massive reach. They even ran out of cuddly orangutan toys to send out to donors. The campaign was a success which was arguably a byproduct of being purely altruistic. That’s the key to regaining brand trust. Your intentions have to be good, through and through.

Switching to circular thinking

Making this switch isn’t easy though, it takes time and a serious amount of energy and fresh thinking - not to mention bravery and commitment - from a considerable amount of stakeholders and staff. This is especially the case when it comes to being more environmentally conscious. Luckily, partnerships can help brands and organisations by easing the transition and offering support.

One foundation, in particular, who partner with brands such as H&M and Nike to help make these internal and external real-world changes possible is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They are quite literally, helping companies to be a ‘force of good’ or to put it in their terms, to be ‘more circular.’ They work with businesses to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design, they call this the Circular Economy. I came across them recently as I’ve had the honour of working on a film series with them:

Admittedly, the words circular economy’ make most people think of grey board rooms, data graphs and financial meetings. It’s actually an incredibly exciting movement, one that is apt for all industries, one which is helping organisations and brands to be more environmentally conscious but with a strong economic focus. Even though they might not necessarily know it, partnerships like these might help bring some brand trust back to the commercial world too.

So what is a circular economy? In Ellen McArthur’s words, it’s "looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model. A circular economy aims to decouple economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and design waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles — designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems."

Think of a rainforest: It’s a perfect ecosystem of processes and production lines, with trees, plants, nutrients, resources, and materials all feeding and looping into one another. There is no waste or value lost, there’s a life-cycle, where materials are broken down and reused. Now imagine applying those same principles to products, production lines, businesses, organisations, cities and the economy. Imagine they all acted like an environmentally-conscious ecosystem built with lots of intertwined ecosystems, where nothing is wasted, where production is thriving, and value is found in waste. Once you see it, it seems so obvious and necessary, yet as an economy we have a long way to go before we can even consider comparing any present-day economy to that of a rainforest.

Making it sustainable

So why am I telling you about the circular economy and how might brand partnerships with foundations like EMF help the advertising industry? It’s of paramount importance that brands acknowledge the positive economic implications of being good, not just so that we can all sleep better at night, but because it makes absolute business sense to ensure a robust and prosperous future for the commercial and advertising industry.

Not only because consumers care more about the effects brands and products are having on the planet but because we can’t carry on with this ‘take-make-waste’ economy. Not in the world of design, not in the world of production and not in the world of advertising.

Only once brands make this shift, can we hope to build a more sustainable prosperous future and only then can brand hope to regain the trust of their audiences.

Understandably global organisations and brands can’t flick a switch overnight and stop or slow-down production to be more environmentally conscious, this is why adopting a circular economy mindset might help. It doesn’t abstain; it advances. It doesn’t stop production; it encourages it. It creates a vibrant, exciting and healthy future where businesses can thrive and create positive real-world changes.

If more brands and organisations partnered with foundations like EMF or even took a leaf out of the Circular Economy book, then we just might create a more sustainable future; a future where people can trust in brands again.

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