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How sustainable brands are boosting consumer sentiment

by Tim Kenyon , 05.08.2021

Consumer concern about the environment is growing, with topics such as climate change and plastic waste dominating headlines. Indeed, data from our GfK What’s Next 4 Consumers survey shows that 69% of Americans are seeing more news stories about the environment today compared to one year ago. This means sustainable brands need to respond with more impactful initiatives to showcase their intent and impact in this important area.

The effects of plastic pollution rank highly on consumer's list of concerns, and for good reason – it is estimated that more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the early 1950s, with about 60% ending up either in landfills or blighting the natural environment.

Sustainable brands are here to stay

This growing consumer interest in sustainable brands is reshaping consumer spending habits. Our GfK Green Consumer Europe 2020 report reveals that one-third of households in Europe have halted purchases that negatively impact the environment or society, and 30% of households are actively choosing alternatives to products wrapped in plastic.

Younger consumers are particularly concerned with choosing sustainable brands, and their passionate activism is having a significant influence on the purchasing behavior of main household shoppers. In many cases, they may be the main shoppers.

Younger adults like Gen Z and Millennials are [spearheading] today’s movement. These generations are tech- and social media-savvy, and they are determined to make a difference.

As a result, brands that fail to demonstrate their commitment risk becoming irrelevant. To this end, some companies are now collaborating to push for a transition to a sustainable economy.

Reducing plastic waste is a key focus for brands

Many sustainable brands are focusing their efforts on reducing plastic waste by adopting more eco-friendly packaging, recycling or upcycling materials, or removing plastic from the supply chain altogether. Heineken is replacing the plastic rings that hold its multipack cans together with cardboard toppers which will remove around 500 tons of single-use plastic from the production process each year.

“While the single-use plastic rings represent just 0.3% of our total packaging, we knew the damage they could cause to the environment if not disposed of responsibly,” says Joseph Brophy, a senior brand PR manager at Heineken UK.

This action has had a happy side effect on consumer perceptions. Customers are not only pleased with the lack of plastic, but also with the appearance of a more premium product.

Another sustainable brand championing eco-friendly packaging is US-based Boxed Water, which sells water in 92% renewable paper-based packaging. “Back when we began [in 2009], sustainability was a fringe movement,” said Robert Koenen, Chief Revenue Officer at Boxed Water. “We had to educate consumers that plastic isn’t good for the environment and we knew that to make progress, we needed to offer something to help people easily make a better choice.”

Today, the sustainable brand has built a loyal customer base, with fans actively supporting its reforestation efforts through their social media posts. “We plant two trees for every post with the hashtag #betterplanet and, to date, we’ve planted 1.2 million trees,” says Koenen. “Thanks to our customers, 10 million plastic bottles have never been made.”

Plastic bottles of hand sanitizer and hand wash are seemingly everywhere as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To address this, Swedish brand FORGO produces a powder-to-liquid handwash, which is delivered directly to consumers in recyclable and compostable paper sachets, alongside a refillable glass bottle.

“The challenging part is getting people to make the first move, but we see that customers are on board with low-waste options if they are readily available,” says FORGO co-founder Allon Libermann.

Electronics manufacturer Philips specifically designs its tech products with the environment in mind. “We embed sustainability in our innovation processes through EcoDesign – an approach that looks at all aspects of product development and design, aligned with business priorities, to reduce the environmental footprint of our products,” explains Robert Metzke, Global Head of Sustainability at Philips.

Making a zero-waste pledge

It is more important than ever for businesses to understand the causes of plastic pollution, recognize their roles in contributing to it, and take steps to start addressing it.

“Businesses need to take consumer concern seriously because much of the plastic waste in the environment has their name on it,” says Douglas Woodring, Founder and Managing Director of non-profit organization Ocean Recovery Alliance, which works to reduce plastic pollution on land and water. Woodring suggests that brands measure their baseline plastic footprint using methodologies such as the Plastic Disclosure Project. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so this program helps companies see what they are doing when it comes to plastic,” he says.

Yet, despite growing concern around the impact of plastic pollution, many consumers are still unwilling to pay the premium often associated with sustainable brands and their eco-friendly products– especially in light of the economic uncertainty brought about by COVID-19. In GfK’s US survey, almost 50% of American consumers said that they have reduced purchases of environmentally friendly products in the past year due to financial concerns.

Focus on authenticity to also attract approval, loyalty, and spend from your buying audience.


What is sustainability?

According to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability is therefore based on the assumption that resources are finite and should be used conservatively.

What are some of the causes of plastic pollution?

Single-use plastic is one of the main contributors to plastic pollution, as it is often disposed of as litter. There are also other less apparent causes of plastic pollution – for instance, clothes made from synthetic fibers contain millions of microplastics, which are released into the water and air during the washing and drying process.

What are some of the effects of plastic pollution?

Plastic pollution is detrimental to marine life. Many aquatic creatures such as whales, fishes, and turtles mistake plastic waste for prey and often end up ingesting or getting entangled in them. Plastic also exacerbates global warming: if plastic waste is incinerated, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

What is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging is packaging that, over time, reduces its environmental footprint. This can be achieved by using 100% recycled or raw materials, extending the packaging’s lifecycle and usability, and more.

Environmentally friendly companies should stress their benefits, without making misleading claims. “Ten years ago, the environmental movement had a lot of momentum, especially when it came to green purchasing,” says GfK’s Kenyon. “However, it stalled to an extent because of the idea of greenwashing – the act of providing misleading information about how a product is environmentally sound. Consumers are on the alert about the authenticity of claims coming from brands.”

Brands should also substantiate their genuine eco-claims where possible – for instance, by quantifying the amount of plastic waste that is saved from landfills as a result of their efforts. Finally, brands must recognize the link between environmental concerns and other social issues.

“The pandemic and social justice causes have meshed with growing worries about climate change,” says Kenyon. “More young adults are following in the footsteps of previous generations of activists, who considered the delicate relationship between environmental justice and social progress, and vice versa.”

It's clear that a holistic approach to Sustainability Governance is key. This starts with understanding what matters most to your consumer and balancing this with what is best for the environment and society. That's when you can focus investment and innovation on areas that not only benefit the planet, but that also attract approval, loyalty, and spend from your buying audience.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the process of providing false or misleading information about how a product is environmentally sound. Companies engaged in greenwashing typically exaggerate their claims or the benefits of their products in a bid to mislead consumers.

Learn more about how ‘Green’ is taking the lead in the world of fast-moving consumer goods. Watch below our presentation at this year’s ‘Sustainability Week: Countdown to COP26’ virtual event held by the Economist.

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