Never have the words of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ rung truer nor felt more prescient. Not just the sense of old giving way to new, a world order disrupted and turned upside down, but the urgent need for action – to heed the call and embrace the change unfolding before us.
Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on health, business and economies, but it has also made us reassess and reprioritise in more positive ways. Rather than longing for a ‘new normal’, many want to take this chance to reset and to strive instead for a better, kinder, greener way to live, work, eat and play.
Out of this crisis, there are already signs of renewal and reasons to be hopeful.
We need seismic shifts to tackle climate issues, and here we have it – with 75% of Britons saying they’ve changed aspects of their behaviour since the pandemic began, according to Canvas8's GlobalWebIndex 2020 Pandemic Culture Report, and 51% of us saying that the positive environmental impact during lockdown has made us ‘more determined to live in an eco-friendly way’, as per Sparkler's Locked Unlocked: Sustainability research. We’re shopping locally, we’re living off-grid, virtual meetings are the norm and many of us will end up with a flight free 2020. In the space of a few months, ideas and actions that were once considered ‘fringe’, have become prevalent amongst the mainstream.
The pandemic has moved the sustainability conversation on beyond plastics. Those doomsday planetary scenarios no longer seem so far-fetched, we’ve seen the visible benefits from changing our behaviour reflected back in the clear Venetian canals, and we’ve begun to appreciate the interconnection between the health of the natural world and our own wellbeing.
As sustainability is re-evaluated, it’s a pivotal time for brand owners to assess their role, responsibilities and influence, not just catering to but in shaping and informing consumers’ rapidly changing behaviours and attitudes.
Putting an end to the sustainability sideshow
Sustainability needs to take centre stage. Rather than a side agenda, the businesses making the greatest strides have sustainability embedded right at the core of their brand, directing all brand actions and giving their purpose even more meaning. Businesses like Ikea where sustainability drives business strategy and not the other way around, spearheaded by their ‘people and planet program’ and evidenced through their entire supply chain, stores and innovation. Ikea’s looked into the future and realised that sustainability will be business critical. By adopting a fully integrated approach, brands have a clearer story to tell, one that is more on-brand, more convincing and more likely to start the change that businesses, consumers and the environment increasingly need.
Moving beyond plastic to broader circularity
We need to move on from plastic and waste. Yes, it still gets media and consumer traction and yes, it’s still a planet-sized issue that needs to be resolved. But it’s not the only agenda and true sustainability is about much more than that. As the pandemic brings in a new wave of consciousness, perhaps we’re ready to start changing the rhetoric – to champion full circularity, to make sustainability about social as well as environmental issues, to embrace fringe topics and move them into the mainstream arena. Businesses need to start thinking beyond themselves and working towards whole system change for entire sectors. Within this, brands have a key role to play as educators and influencers. And as distrust in the current system grows, and consumers look elsewhere for action and support, it’s the brands that are active, visible and get involved in the conversation who will help to change what we as individuals are concerned about and engage with.
Making sustainability appealing and aspirational
One of the key trends emerging from Covid-19 is around restrained consumption. We are buying less, buying better, and buying with more scrutiny. What if brands could take this opportunity to really change how we feel about sustainable products and to find that sweet spot between what’s in it for the common good and what’s in it for me? Sustainability can and should have mainstream appeal, and the more businesses can do to make it accessible and relevant, the more widely ingrained those choices will become. Take a look at Nike, a brand with innate appeal that’s bringing desirability to its sustainability agenda, creating trainers like VaporMax and Space Hippie that are genuinely aspirational without diminishing the serious nature of the business’s ‘move to zero’ ambitions and circular design leadership within the industry. Nike could still do more – until that day when all their products are inherently sustainable rather than a select few. But if one thing’s for sure, a crucial first step is making the sustainable choice, the desirable choice.
The future is uncertain, we are all living in a state of flux, and yet there are signs to be hopeful - signs of renewal and of a desire to build back better rather than re-establish the status quo. Take an honest look at your brand strategy – to what extent is sustainability a core part of that? Have you explored what circularity would look like in your sector, what needs to change to get there, and how you can make sense of the value your brand can bring?
Here are three ways you can take a step on that journey as we move into the re-evaluation phase of the pandemic:
- Look at how to integrate sustainability into your core brand strategy so that one drives the other and vice versa
- Think about what sustainability issues your brand can really influence and where you can have the most positive and significant impact
- Consider how to frame your sustainability messaging to inspire and encourage people to see what’s in it for them as well as the greater good
The time for re-appraisal is now. Because, harking back to the words of the old song, the chance for change won’t come again soon.
Kate Sheerin, associate director at Dragon Rouge.