These Sustainable Times

What is the reality of the sustainability problem? Is there a gap between consumer desire, consumer demand and shopper behaviour? Do consumers even really understand what sustainability is? Who is ultimately responsible for better sustainable solutions?  And what possible solutions are viable?

These are the questions that were debated and discussed earlier this month at The Executing Shopper Insights Conference 2019 held in London. Path Founder and Marketing Director Thomas Herman was joined on the main stage by Patrick Osborne, Head of Customer Insights & Analysis at QVC UK and Samuel Cernak, Category Manager at Anheuser-Busch InBev for a panel discussion exploring how shopper behaviours are going to evolve alongside the values of sustainability.

Cernak summed up the issue at hand with a somewhat cheeky analogy – “Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everyone says they are doing it, but very few people are actually doing it – and those who are, are doing it badly.” Providing a more subdued analysis, he described the challenge of sustainability to be one of developing a credible agenda and credible message that the consumer can buy into.

“Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everyone says they are doing it, but very few people are actually doing it – and those who are, are doing it badly.”

The focus for QVC is around determining how sustainability fits into their business model and how to respond quickly and effectively to consumer concerns. As the third largest direct-to-consumer retailer, QVC offers products that are extra spend verses essential spend. Thus, sustainability may not always be a priority for consumers. This, however, can change in an instant and demand a quick response. For example, when Greenpeace’s Palm Oil video circulated across social media, QVC’s message boards began to fill with consumer concern over whether or not the cosmetics being sold by the retailer contained the controversial ingredient.

Whilst there is definitely consumer desire for sustainable solutions, there are also certain caveats. When presented with a product which is perceived to be more sustainable, consumers may be inclined to purchase – but not if it costs more, has inferior quality or inferior performance. The question we are facing is how to communicate sustainability agenda without putting on extra costs and meeting consumer expectations.

ABInBev’s sustainability program, Better world, currently runs both corporate and brand/consumer facing initiatives. In addition to consumers, retailers are asking how to make the beer category sustainable, particularly around plastic and packaging. Already, ABInBev has responded with Corona piloting a plastic-free six pack last year.

But do consumers lack understanding of what sustainability really is? Not necessarily, according to Osborne as he spoke about a recent QVC initiative around sustainable diamonds. What this means, in essence, is that they were mined with no child labour and despite communication on the pack, consumers were still confused. “When it is more esoteric than less plastic or less packaging, it becomes really difficult to understand,” said Osborne.

Clearly, there are great opportunities in regards to improved communication. Great initiatives are already in place, but are they being communicated properly and effectively? How can this be solved?

Consider single-use plastic bottles – a behaviour that we all know needs to change. When shoppers, however, are in the water fixture, it is difficult and take time to determine what bottles are recycled verses non-recycled. Making compromises to convenience in order to make the right decision doesn’t always win out.

To cut through and provoke behaviour change, we need solutions that are obvious and easy. Filtered water fountains for refillable bottles is a good example – extremely disruptive in the way it changes the nature of the industry entirely, but simple and clear enough for consumers to understand.

“It’s not so much about marketing sustainability as it is about finding more viable solutions that happen to be sustainable,” comments Herman.

Sometimes, however, it is the brands who are pushing back. Marketing expert Irene Martinez shared a story about how wine offered in cans was rejected by brand owners, in spite of the fact that product quality was not at all diminished and positive consumer response. “If it is convenient and fits their lifestyle, consumers will be open to change. Brands, however, often use the consumer as an excuse for not changing and evolving,” comments Martinez.

“If it is convenient and fits their lifestyle, consumers will be open to change. Brands, however, often use the consumer as an excuse for not changing and evolving.”

The final point of discussion centred around the circular economy and the idea of getting materials to stay within the system. Rather than coming up with new solutions, perhaps it is time to return older formats and processes – like returnable glass bottles. “In terms of innovation and disruption, its not always something new, its sometimes about how the context can change to make the idea appropriate,” comment Herman.

Whilst Cernak agreed that the idea of returnable glass bottles was a strong and had seen a certain level of success in markets such as Germany, he also felt that we need to be weary of solutions that appear to be environmentally friendly, but in actuality, create a different set of problems. For example, in order for glass bottles to be returnable and fillable, they need to be thicker. This, of course, makes them heavier, which in turn increases the amount of fuel needed to transport, ultimately leading to increases in CO2 emissions.

“It’s not that we don’t know how to be sustainable, its that we don’t know how to fit sustainability into the way we live now.”

Following on regarding reusable bottles, Osborne commented, “At that time, only one person was working, women were shopping everyday because there was no refrigeration – it fit the lifestyle. Today, this sort of solution doesn’t really fit and that’s the real challenge. It’s not that we don’t know how to be sustainable, its that we don’t know how to fit sustainability into the way we live now.”

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