Changeis something we’ve seen an awful lot of these past months. Unprecedented change that has been unsettling for all of us – as individuals and as professionals.
But however unsettling, such times can also be an eye-opening learning opportunity and moment for reflection. It would be overly simplistic to say that people have embraced these changes, because many have been devastatingly disruptive.
But what has become clear is that people are not necessarily desperate for a return to ‘normal.’ In fact, back in April, a YouGov poll revealed that 91% of Britons would rather we didn’t.
We were not perfect before the pandemic and we will not magically emerge so once lockdowns are fully lifted. But what this experience has triggered is a widespread reflection, a shift in what is valued. And climate change, and its huge escalation in importance in the public consciousness before the outbreak – Extinction Rebellion, Australia ablaze, a teenager schooling world leaders – is going to be right at the top of that agenda when we are back to ‘normal.’
This is one of the main reasons we decided to launch Beta Good during lockdown. Other than realising that many sustainability consultancies aren’t strategically or creatively strong enough, there are going to be so many companies finding out just how much help they need.
As a starting point, here are four strategies we think will be highly important
Move the mindset from purpose to responsibility
Having a purpose has been fashionable for a few years. And encouragingly, some brands have been using their power and their platform to start difficult conversations and lead by example.
But this pandemic has been a shock to the system. The UN environment chief called it nature sending us a message about how serious the damage we are doing is. Be it for environmental or health reasons, behaviour changes are needed. And where brands and businesses have already been voices for change, they will now have a new role to play in actively helping to implement those changes.
But these new responsibilities can also become an opportunity for brands. They have a responsibility to find a way through these obstacles of cost and complexity, and they have an opportunity to be the ones who deliver the solution – the solution to people’s eco-anxiety.
Become altruistic collaborators
There are now few major businesses without a sustainability agenda. In 2018 Nielsen found that 81% of people strongly feel that companies should help to improve the environment, and so whether it’s Unilever vowing to sell off brands that hurt the planet or society or Burger King promising to remove plastic toys from kids meals most businesses now look to mitigate their own impacts.
However addressing a challenge as complex as climate change requires cross-business and cross-category collaboration. We are starting to see that happen within sectors. As part of its commitment to reduce water usage, Levi’s has gone open-source with revolutionary production methods.
Gustaf Asp, head of H&M’s new open supply chain venture known as Treadler, recently announced: “We are not concerned or afraid of opening up the supply chain. Individual brands can only make it so far. To take it further in the industry we need to open it up to collaboration.”
For businesses today, if we are to change the world for good, we need to look beyond our own impacts and think about how we can collaborate to find solutions for all.
Sustainability educators and next-gen transparency
Consumers are increasingly alienated by brands using sustainability to appear culturally relevant. Iceland did itself very few favours by vowing to remove palm oil from its products when, in fact, it did no more than remove labels from those products. But companies such as Quorn, which now includes CO2 footprint information on packs, have stronger brands and businesses than ever.
A 2019 survey by Genomatica revealed that 74% of US respondents who read product ingredients don’t understand what those ingredients are. The opportunity for brands is to provide this explanation and education, helping people who are not sustainability experts navigate their way through complexity.
For example, actor Emma Watson recently partnered with second-hand clothing website ThredUP to launch a new ‘Fashion Footprint Calculator’ to help consumers understand their wardrobe’s CO2 footprint.
Behaviour innovators – destroying the offset mindset
“We’re not telling you to offset your emissions by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa, while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate. Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed.” That was Greta Thunberg’s message to Davos at the start of 2020.
Indeed the offsetting mindset is increasingly viewed as lazy. People want more. They want to see businesses looking at how they can reduce wastage and rely less on certain raw materials. And, as far as offsetting goes, people want innovative ways of doing it and a plausible journey that lessens our reliance on it.
So we’re seeing Chinese fashion brand Reclothing Bank partnering with Hyundai to offer surplus car interior fabrics as raw material and McDonald’s diverting the 62 million pounds of coffee chaff it produces each year from landfill into the manufacture of Ford car parts.
This is likely just the beginning. We will soon see more businesses totally rethinking their behaviour, from Ruinart champagne forgoing aesthetics for second-skin packaging to Singapore’s housing & development board hero-ing its first eco-town, Punggol.
It won’t be easy but it can be done. It will be those firms who embrace these ideas, who help people find a way through the obstacles of cost and complexity, who will thrive in the new, more sustainable world that we are creating. And the best bit is, we get to do it together.
Robin Gadsby is CEO of Beta Good, part of the Forever Beta Group.