We’re at a tipping point. Climate change has long been on the radar of individuals and companies. But in the past few years, there has been a rapid acceleration and escalation in the climate emergency. The signs of the damage we’ve done are getting harder to ignore. And so are the protests.
Many consumers are ready and willing to do something about the climate emergency. Unilever famously found in a 2017 study that a third of consumers now choose to buy from brands that they believe are doing social or environmental good. But the reality is that for most people it is still not easy to live sustainably. First and foremost, it is a financial privilege. Even the most morally committed consumers can run up against price premiums that they simply cannot manage.
Even for those who can afford to choose, those choices are difficult. Many celebrated solutions come with negative side effects - for example, the concerns that the energy required to produce alternative milks may be no lower than that used by the dairy industry. Feeling like we need to be experts, we’re left feeling lost and powerless, but still with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. We at Beta Good believe this presents businesses with a responsibility and an opportunity. They have a responsibility to find a way through these obstacles of cost and complexity, but they have an opportunity to be the ones who deliver the solution to people’s eco-anxiety.
There are many ways companies can do this, but here are 3 of the most important.
Becoming behaviour innovators and 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 62m 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 behaviours. This will be in everything from Ruinart champagne forgoing aesthetics for a second-skin packaging to Singapore’s housing and development board heroing its first eco-town, Punggol.
New tech adopters
As relying on raw materials becomes increasingly challenging and damaging, we will have to re-embrace science for its ability to create matter from scratch. Businesses have a key role to play in helping people understand the need and the opportunity here. A 2019 survey in China found that 46.7% of respondents had negative views of GMOs, with 14% believing it was a form of bioterrorism aimed at China. Similar views are held elsewhere in the world, fuelled by popular culture and widespread misinformation.
Yet it is changing. Last year Impossible Foods, maker of the Impossible Whopper, raised a further $300m in its latest round of funding, taking the total raised to over $750m. South Korean meal replacement brand Labnosh packs all the nutritional value of a balanced meal into a single bar or drink.
New technologies are emerging all the time. Take the recent research from Penn State University into the self-cleaning toilet, which would halve water use. The opportunity for big consumer businesses is to take these new technologies to market are real. Adidas’ use of biodegradable and durable synthetic spider silk in their products proves this is possible.
Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled, and yet the average number of times a garment is worn before it is discarded has decreased by 36%. In China, it has decreased by 70%. Some clothes are worn just seven to ten times before they’re thrown away. To solve this we need to create a shift into more conscious and long-term consumption habits. China’s sharing economy is expected to grow by 30% annually for the next five years, as everything from bikes and scooters to umbrellas and phone-chargers is rented, but the sharing economy is just the start.
Initiatives like Adidas’ Parley collection made from recycled ocean plastic is a positive step, but the output is yet another limited edition product. In cities such as Beijing, Jakarta, Istanbul and Rome, people can trade plastic waste for credit on public transport, but still, transport consumption is there.
Brands and businesses need to actively break the unsustainable consumption cycle that we have all fallen into. We need to follow the example of Fairphone and Phonebloks which are challenging the typical inbuilt obsolescence of iPhones to create a single mobile device you can modularly upgrade. In the months and years ahead the brands that offer these reduced consumption opportunities will be the brands that people increasingly engage with.
Businesses leading the way
That is, then, the challenge and the opportunity. To survive in the future organisations must remake themselves. They must become altruistic collaborators, sustainability educators, behaviour innovators, new tech adopters, and consumption reducers.
It won’t be easy. But it can be done.
We’re already seeing early adopters like Unilever, Patagonia, IKEA and Danone showing what is possible. Others will follow, and 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.