What happens when we consider sustainability as a lifestyle choice?

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Over the past couple of years, we have spent time observing the swell of conversation around sustainability. Our society and politics has become dominated by a debate that, in this so-called age of outrage, feels as polarising as Brexit.

Beyond the headlines garnered by the media, Greta Thunberg and our politicians, to what extent are ideas around sustainability filtering down into the everyday lives of consumers? How are messages being absorbed, if at all, into consumer consciousness? And how, in turn, are these messages influencing consumer behaviour?

As brands - new and old - seek to engage the issue in a bid to demonstrate ethical stances that align with shifting consumer expectations, positing a clear brand vision of a sustainable future is proving a key component of a given brand’s cultural strategy, if not solely their commercial one.

Is sustainability simply a fad, a passing “trend” that’s being treated with the same air of tokenism and disposability that progressive issues have done in recent years? The debate raises some key considerations for brands. When does existential threat become cultural (and societal) opportunity? What is your brand’s sustainable insight? What is the relationship you wish to forge with consumers and communities in order to ensure that long-term engagement? It’s perhaps important to ask these questions. To treat the issue of sustainability as a passing trend feels counter. Or is there something much deeper at play from the point of view of thinking about long-term strategic success over quick wins.

Many still feel priced out of access to sustainable products. As such, there is an inherent tension between our compulsion to consume and sustainability in its truest sense.

In my day to day, I try not to contribute to fast fashion as often as a new trend will come out. But I’m not in a position where I can buy all eco-friendly clothes, so it’s about small wins. If I’m gonna buy fast fashion, I buy pieces I can have for a long time.

Sustainable alternatives to lifestyle products are often more expensive in the green marketplace. Many people we spoke to suggested that, for example, clothing made out of sustainable/eco-friendly materials often demanded a higher price tag. It is this premiumisation of sustainable products that serves to deny access to the average consumer; our ethical and moral consciousness is left asking whether democratisation of sustainable products is even a thing. Is this movement - that we’re currently all being told we’re accountable for - actually driving further exclusivity?

Until now, we’ve understood “sustainability” under purely environmental terms. What’s clear is that it’s starting to take on a new and profound meaning in our day to day lives, behaviours and attitudes.

Plainly, this is about giving the consumer a greater feeling of choice; offering viable alternatives that engage them in a decision-making process that crucially aligns with their emerging value system. It’s worth considering that this is a value system that still requires further definition and exists therefore as a critical role for brands to provide the tools and language that will enable consumers to do so.

Or, if you’re a brand like Oatly, you don’t want to just talk exclusively about sustainability and instead, focus on positioning your product as a lifestyle brand instead. After all, at a time when eco-anxiety looms heavy, to what extent would the consumer engage in messaging that only serves to threaten and heighten their already acute sense of anxiety?

What does it mean to be wealthy in an era of eco-anxiety?

How are brands, services and institutions setting us up to succeed? At the very least, they give us the emotional feeling that we are, in some way, living up to these newfound values and ethics, or remind us that we derive a deeper sense of belonging if we form part of a wider movement.

We conducted some research with a millennial cohort in the UK to find out their relationship with personal finances and the results underlined their need for greater guidance. Financial institutions are blamed for denying them any real sense of financial education. Structurally, the financial model is set up for banks, not individuals, to succeed - consumers both feel and know this.

Where wealth used to be defined by how much we earned, it’s now much more about feeling secure and in control, as well as being able to live a balanced lifestyle. With that, we’re redefining what “growth” means to us - a more holistic mindset over a monetary goal.

I used to be worried about financial success when I was younger but now it’s about being happy in myself and taking small steps to reach my goals. Success to me means wealth but not in the sense of being a millionaire, just more about being financially capable and mentally and spiritually wealthy.

Sustainability is about more than just consumerism - it’s a belief system

If we can start tackling climate change, it’s going to have a positive impact on so many things in the world. In order to do that, there needs to be change at a systems level and that means rethinking how we make money, how we build communities and how we do politics.

It is this idea of a balanced lifestyle that opens the doors to a sustainable future. For a younger generation, sustainability has become a mindset for survival, a reactionary coping mechanism in a world of uncertainty. It is not only just about sustaining the world around them, it is also about how individuals sustain themselves. Brands should view sustainability as the gateway to an opportunity for pause - it should not be viewed solely as the solution. Rather, the ongoing dialogue around sustainability should be seen as the much-needed prompt for driving both consumer and brand behaviour change and reinvention.

Under this new belief system, it is crucial to understand that consumers are not inspired by sustainability; it is merely a baseline expectation. In this era - and to that point - brands need to have multiple dimensions and not just a singular face, moving beyond sustainability means inspiring meaningful growth and regeneration in the lives of the consumer and the communities they seek to serve.

Will de Groot, head of insight at The Elephant Room.

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