Can labels spark a shift to sustainable behaviour?

24th November, 2010 by Anna Simpson

Anna Simpson reports on a new spirit of brand activism that’s reigniting the debate around green consumption.

Brands create desire. That's how they work. Not just the desire to have and to hold that soft leather handbag or slick shiny laptop – but to be the swish lady or creative type in the ad. But can they make us desire a more sustainable world? Can they make us want to be the person in that picture?

" You don't wake up one morning and say, 'Life would be better with an aloe vera loo roll' "

For Sally Uren, DeputyChief Executiveat Forum for the Future, we absolutely need them to do just that. "It's naïve to believe that mainstream consumers will suddenly start demanding sustainable products" off their own bat, she says. "They don't wake up one morning and decide that they need to integrate their camera with their phone, or that life will be better with aloe vera loo roll." If anyone can make using less energy, or even buying less stuff, appealing to the mainstream (and not just the bean-munching, hemp-clad few), it's brands. But why would they want to?

Because it's a great excuse to engage with consumers, says Uren. When brands talk about sustainability, they don't just talk about their own future. They talk about the consumer's future: what they do when they leave the store, how they take care of the things they buy, how they take care of themselves. Effectively, it's a chance to go home with them...

Take Ariel's 'Turn to 30' campaign. By telling people about one tiny change to their weekly washing routine, Ariel helped its customers save money, feel informed, and gave them the warm glow of getting something right. Of course they went back for more. Saving 60,000 tonnes of carbon over five years was almost beside the point.
Another example was Sainsbury's waste-cutting initiative, 'Love your leftovers'. Shoppers were handed a Tupperware box and recipe card to give them ideas on how to serve up food that they might otherwise have thrown away.

It all makes for a stronger relationship between consumer and brand. The brand is no longer just a name: it's a mentor, a helping hand, someone with your wellbeing in mind. It's a key reason – says Andrew Jenkins, Sustainable Development Manager at Boots – that his company survives in the face of tough competition on both range and price from supermarkets. Customers already go to Boots for healthcare and beauty advice, so the brand's better placed than most to offer information about sustainability. "But it's not something we can shout about," says Jenkins: "They expect us to be doing it already. People aren't interested in corporate messages," he explains. "They want advice on what they can do themselves."

More brands are taking up this mentoring role. Dorothy MacKenzie of Dragon Rouge cites the US cereal company, Nature's Path. It offers The Ultimate Eat Well Do Good Resource Library – with links to books, films, consumer guides, information on how to grow your own, and the contact details of various organic farms and certification schemes. It's far more effective than assurances about the quality and sources of its grains – and it makes the consumer feel part of a wider movement towards the same goal.

" Everyone knows a brand is out to make money. That clarity of intent wins trust"

According to Annie Longsworth, Managing Director at the global PR company Cohn & Wolfe, consumers are more willing to trust brands than government. "Republicans and Democrats meet at the checkout," she argues. And it's not just in the US. "Consumers tend not to trust what government is saying," says Jenkins: "They think it has another agenda." And the same goes for non-profits. "People resist moralising statements", says MacKenzie. "But everyone knows a brand is out to make money – and that clarity of intent wins trust."

But what makes brands really effective vehicles for change, she adds, is their "power to normalise" new trends and ways of doing things. Consumers are suspicious of change. Take tablet computers. However easy they are to use, it's hard to imagine that anyone other than Apple could have got away with being the first to drop the keyboard. Without the backing of a trusted brand, your average shopper wouldn't take the risk. But within the safe space of their reputation and established aesthetics, novelty is more palatable.

Of course, the most direct way for a brand to create change is to build it into their products, without asking the consumer to do anything at all. So, instead of prompting people to adjust the dials in their fridge, sell them a more efficient model. Rather than explain how this particular TV will save so much money over so many months, take the other sets off the shelf.

That's just what eight major UK retailers did. With the support of the Energy Saving Trust and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, they ditched the least efficient TVs (see 'Major retailers switch off energy-hungry TVs'). More brands are editing the choice available to us. Think of B&Q's decision to end their entire line of patio heaters (see 'Exclusive interview with Ian Cheshire, CEO Kingfisher'). But, Uren insists, the language around such 'choice-editing' has to change. "Retailers go into a cold sweat if you talk about offering less choice! That's not the point," she says. "It's about promoting the sustainable option."

The question begs: what can a brand do when the really sustainable option is a shift away from sales altogether? "If we take a serious look at sustainable consumption," says MacKenzie, "we have to look at radical innovation, including the fundamental shift from products to services."

For brands, leasing a product or offering a service makes the consumer much more likely to come back for more. It's a major new business trend, and one that could send profit margins through the roof. Imagine. Instead of spending time, money and sweat on making more stuff, offer consumers the same product again and again. Service-based brands are cropping up in every sector, from media (LOVEFiLM, iTunes) to transport (Streetcar). Start-ups like WhipCar are even encouraging consumers to put their own vehicle up for rental. It's a significant shift, and one that threatens to outmanoeuvre brands that cling to more traditional models.

"I'm still waiting for a major brand to have a serious conversation – with its consumers – about limits to consumption," says Uren. "There's no point holding back on this. Timidity never built trust."

Smart consumption

Forum for the Future is working with leading businesses, including as M&S, Unilever, Sainsbury’s and PepsiCo, to promote a future where:

  • Sustainable products and services are mainstream, not niche.
  • People want to buy these products, as they are both affordable and desirable.
  • The retail sector contributes positively to wellbeing.
  • New business models deliver both commercial success and wider sustainability.

Anna Simpson is Deputy Editor, Green Futures.

Image credit: Berekin / istock

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