Selling sustainability to consumers

  • by helga
  • 05/05/2014

It’s a known model: whenever there is an initiative aimed at raising awareness of sustainability with consumers, it’s sponsored by one of the largest, most profitable FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) conglomerates in the world.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, in principle. Take the Live Better Challenge in the Guardian, sponsored by Unilever. It’s brilliant! 

“The Live Better Challenge is all about coming together to make a difference to our lives, and the world around us, through positive action.”

They issue seven challenges around food waste, health, sustainable living and more, and each month incentivise readers to think about sustainability and what they can do to reduce their footprint. May’s challenge is  to reduce the amount of rubbish we produce – ideally achieving zero rubbish outside recycling and composting, at least for 1 month. April’s challenge was to reduce household energy use by 10 per cent, an initiative in partnership with the Energy Saving Trust. March’s challenge was to reduce food waste.

The content is editorially independent and I’m guessing Unilever just paid for adverts or native advertising linking out from the main articles, building up the long-term equity of having their brand associated with sustainability. Not only associated with it, but doing something about it too – educating consumers and prompting positive action is a very important steps towards a more sustainable future.

There is plenty of criticism about demand-generated change among environmentalists though – to put it simply, consumers demanding more sustainable products from brands will not be enough to change the course of events. This is because other important decision-making factors are at play when choosing a product/service over another (price, accessibility, brand image, status quo) and consumer inertia tops it all – no one really gives a flying duck about sustainability unless someone else makes it really easy to access these products and brands.

And here we go into pure behavioural-change theory: rather than simply generating awareness and educating consumers, brands should also be removing barriers to change. Sustainable change needs to be downstream (educating consumers), midstream (promoted across business, industry and thought leaders) and upstream (appealing to governments, regulators and policy-makers).

Imagine if sustainable brands, sustainable products and sustainable practices were the only viable solution for staying below a 2-degree temperature rise by the end of the century? (Just imagine, for a moment, I know it sounds crazy!) Sure, so make that choice easier for me! How will I know which Unilever products I should be picking, and how often? How is the energy required to manufacture and distribute such products generated? Burning coal and other fossil fuels or from renewable sources? Replacing the resources it takes away? Promoting social inclusion and equality within its supply chain and the communities where it operates, or taking advantage of regulation gaps and tax loops to achieve higher growth rate and returns? This equates to asking how expensive a product is in the long run.

Using a practical example, let’s talk about food.

If I want to stay healthy, feeling energised and terrific while avoiding huge costs to my national healthcare system and the environment, as a consumer (and a taxpayer), my request to Unilever would be: please make a healthy and sustainable diet easy to achieve, make healthy and sustainable products the cheapest, the easiest to access, the kinder possible on the environment, and the most pleasing to my taste buds.

(It’s yet to be proven that we can feed the world’s growing population sustainably with our current model, but that’s another topic altogether… A really good article in Scientific American says it is possible, but that we need to a) do much more research on generating ‘synthetic meat’/protein replacements and shift diets away from real meat; b) stop expanding agriculture’s carbon footprint and use resources much more efficiently; c) close the world’s yield gaps – i.e. help those countries which are yet to achieve such high yields as other parts of the world; d) reduce food waste – we currently waste about 1/3 of what we produce in weight!)

Going back to the Guardian’s Live Better Challenge, my main point is: besides sponsoring general consumer awareness and education, Unilever needs be more open about their products and really see the opportunities for providing more sustainable products and services, even if that means lower profits/growth initially.

I visited Unilever’s Sustainable Living Microsite and looked up their ‘Improving Nutrition’ target: ‘31% of our portfolio by volume met the criteria for highest nutritional standards in 2013.‘ 31%??? I’m not even digging into what ‘highest nutritional standards’ means in this context, but is 31% good enough? There is a very practical and understandable reason, of course:

“Making the changes too quickly in one go would mean people would switch to other higher salt, fat and sugar products. This would be counterproductive for our business and from a public health perspective.”

I’m not sure I understand ‘from a public health perspective’ but I understand the rest of the sentence.

Giving people what they want will always sound good in principle, particularly when you provide education  about what’s good and bad for us and the planet. However, change is not happening fast enough.

Seriously. Take a wide and long-ranging perspective, and the move towards sustainability cannot be labelled ‘idealism’ or ‘tree-hugging’: it’s plain business acumen.

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