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Can Sustainability reinvent itself post-COVID19?

In a recent webinar Mark Ritson asserted that the expectations for radical changes in consumer behaviour were unfounded, and like some demonic rubber band the consumer (and brand) behaviours would snap back to where they were pre-COVID.

In effect it was the ‘Bobby Ewing in the shower’ moment (for those of you old enough to remember ‘Dallas’!). Nothing had seriously changed despite the last 4 months. Sectors in decline pre-COVID would continue to struggle afterwards, as witnessed by the decimation of retail, whilst trends that were in the ascendency would continue to grow and even accelerate in some cases. Is he right?

One of those growing trends has been Sustainability, and all the evidence points towards a renewed consumer intent to make ‘better’ choices in future. The absolute proof that our way of living was damaging the environment has been starkly highlighted by the dramatic improvements in air quality globally during the lockdown.

Certainly consumers have been making all the right noises in various surveys and future trend reviews. The online research company, VYPR, have been producing a useful weekly survey of consumer attitudes throughout the whole lockdown period across various purchase behaviours and intentions. As part of this predictive study, it has tracked the intention to choose products with less plastic packaging, with results being fairly consistent varying from 70.9% agreeing (April 27th) to 67.6% (Jun 8th). So despite all other issues, the awareness of the sustainability agenda is becoming hardwired into consumer attitudes, which is encouraging.

However, whilst consumers are apparently skipping happily towards their post-COVID sunrise with a renewed vigour and desire to improve the planet and reduce our negative impact on it, the existential threat faced in terms of personal safety and the health of their family has changed priorities quite significantly, and this needs to be factored into our expectations. When PPE was required to protect frontline NHS staff and keyworkers, no one questioned the fact that it was single use and generally plastic or synthetic. The critical need was paramount. Whilst it’s good to see some non-plastic PPE coming through now, at that time all other factors simply did not matter.

So how can we maintain the momentum on Sustainability, when there are other (more critical) concerns?

As part of the Cosmoprof talks programme during the last week, both WGSN and Beautystream highlighted future trends that demonstrate the reality and scale of this challenge. Safety, whether in a retail or leisure environment, or in terms of product ingredients and their clean manufacture, is understandably a major concern now. The anticipated increase in single use plastics for sampling of cosmetics or extra layers of packaging for fruit and veg in store, coupled with the likely return of preservatives (albeit natural ones) in products, demonstrate the significance of this need for personal safety.

Make no mistake, the consumer wants to ‘do the right thing’ but we are whistling in the wind if we ask them to choose between personal survival or survival of the planet because if faced with a such a choice, safety will win every time, and this is expected to continue for not just months but years to come.

I believe it is the responsibility of brand owners to take the Sustainability concerns off their minds when buying products. We need to ensure that both safety and sustainability are at the heart of our products. That’s not just ‘the Holy Grail’ (to quote WGSN) but actually our job.

And it is clear that brands are at various points on this journey, with some only waking up to the need for reduced impact sourcing and manufacture, whilst others are placing the sustainability agenda at the heart and soul of their business.

However having spoken to many business owners during the lockdown, they are primarily focused on survival right now as you would expect, and so I am not convinced that businesses are really putting Purpose before profit, as stated by Euromonitor in the latest trends review of post-COVID consumer behaviours. That feels some way off, and possibly more likely to come from bigger companies who can ride out the storm more easily than SMEs, although it is a laudable ambition for all in the longer term.

We need to find ways to ensure that Sustainability is no longer just seen as a competitive advantage but more as a table stake in earning the right to offer products for sale to consumers who have bigger problems to cope with. We would never knowingly sell a product that was unsafe, so why sell products that are knowingly harmful in their impact on the environment? Every new product needs to have sustainability and safety built into the initial Business Case. Every product that you currently sell and every sourcing decision made should be re-evaluated through this lens to see whether you are helping your consumer to really help the environment, or forcing them to choose between safety or sustainability.

By universally embracing sustainability as simply ‘the way we do things’ in future, all brands can contribute positively to the direction of travel, and help the consumer to know that they are making the right choices without having to ask some fairly basic questions of us.

Then we can get back to a more ambitious playing field where true innovation that goes way beyond simply planting a tree or removing plastic straws creates future growth.

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