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Sustainability Marketing Brand Safety

Now’s not the time to trade planet for pocket: why brands must invest in sustainability

By Dan Bowers, Chief strategy officer, TMW Unlimited

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January 6, 2023 | 6 min read

Dan Bowers of Unlimited urges marketers to consider the cost of prioritizing profitability while natural disasters worsen.

Reflection of trees and sky in clear ball

What part do marketers have to play in the climate conversation? / greg_nunes via Unsplash

As consumers increase their focus on affordability in the short term, brands must not shy away from their long-term sustainability commitments. Right now, consumers are fighting battles on multiple fronts. The cost of living crisis is wreaking havoc on household finances, placing people and businesses under enormous stress.

This pressure is unsurprisingly taking precedence when it comes to purchase decisions. If it comes down to a choice of what’s good for the planet or what’s good for their pocket, consumers are often having to sacrifice their principles.

Which raises the question: why are consumers still being forced to pay a premium to live more sustainably?

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How are brands accountable?

A national study conducted by our Human Understanding Lab points to brands having a responsibility to move beyond forcing this choice upon the public, by investing for the longer term.

In the current economic climate, it’s inevitable that price will be the dominant factor for many people when it comes to choosing a product. As the importance of value increases, everything else is unavoidably being pushed down in the pecking order.

In fact, our study found that household costs are the top concern for people (in the UK) right now (63%) – nearly double that of the issue of climate change (33%). When push comes to shove, people are willing to compromise sustainability for affordability.

Tunnel vision

We shouldn’t attribute this to any moral failing. In moments of stress, it’s human instinct to go into survival mode. If we’re struggling to make ends meet, and under immense pressure to feed families and heat homes, it's natural to focus on the short term. Long-term issues that don’t directly affect the here-now will always feel less important in comparison.

Nevertheless, this is deeply worrying. While environmental issues may feel comparatively less urgent, they’re more pressing than they’ve ever been: record-breaking heatwaves, devastating floods, unprecedented wildfires, and sudden cold snaps. These are no longer speculations or abstract threats, they’re part of our current reality.

People’s focus and attention may have been diverted by pandemics and war, plus social and economic crises, but the risk of environmental catastrophe looms larger than ever. It won't be solved by a scientific miracle at the click of a finger; we need drastic and comprehensive action, from everyone. Brands need to step up and lead the charge.

Our study found that three-quarters of the nation think that brands have a responsibility to solve climate change. Consumer expectations of the role that brands need to play are incredibly high. In fact, our study found it’s on par with the expectations placed on the government. Hence why it’s vital that brands resist the short-term temptation to deprioritize sustainability in favor of profitability.

Sustainability shouldn't come at a cost

Financially vulnerable consumers should not be forced to sacrifice their good intentions and beliefs because of economic factors beyond their control. Brands need to step up and deliver on their promises to be more sustainable. In scenarios where there is a price tag attached, big businesses have a responsibility to bear most of that cost.

This shouldn’t be seen as an idealist plea for brands to put planet beyond profit. There’s an ever-growing commercial arguments that being more sustainable is fundamental to securing future success as a brand. Just because consumers have different priorities right now, this does not mean that their long-term expectation of brands solving this issue will change.

Right now, the data shows that all generations clearly care deeply about the environment, but it’s the younger audiences of the future that are less forgiving of brands not doing all they can. They are also more likely to vote with their feet.

So, brands must invest in the long-term and do all they can to make themselves sustainable, removing any premium to the consumer wherever possible. Even if there’s a short-term cost, it’s the only way to win – and protect – the future.

Sustainability Marketing Brand Safety

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UNLIMITED delivers business impact through human understanding. We’re an integrated tech-enabled agency group comprised of TMW, Walnut, Health Unlimited and Nelson...

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