Sustainability: A Business Issue, Not Just For Kaftan Wearers!

The NextWomen October Sustainability & Clean Tech theme. 

Guest article by sustainability hero Diana Verde Nieto, Founder and CEO of PositiveLuxury.com.

Saying I’m living a sustainable life is probably one of the worst opening lines at a dinner party and the one that will allow me to spend the rest of the evening alone

This is perhaps a big generalization, but sustainable living is mainly associated with giving up everything that we enjoy in life, or wearing things that are not very flattering…

Many topics are covered in a dinner party from art, school, kids, holiday to fashion and food. But there is an elephant in the room if anybody asks the question how and what we consume…

In the last 20 years we have witnessed a flood of new brands launching with strong sustainability claims but they’re expensive and not up to scratch. The cycle of products in the market becomes predictable… niche green products are launched with an expensive price tag; mainstream companies take notes and the original improves its quality; the niche rivals improve their products' effectiveness; the mainstream brands win by delivering a good product, with sustainable innovation embedded at its core.

Like Unilever, P&G, or Toyota, although this disruptive innovation happens at brand and product level (e.g. the Toyota Prius) the reality is that there is a shift at a company level in order for this innovation to happen at a product level. 

But the consumer barely notices. Ecover, for instance, ran a trial with Mumsnet recently where every mum’s review began with a tale that they’d tried Ecover a few years ago, found it expensive and not very good, went back to Fairy but like the new Ecover very much. 

For many years now brands that have embraced sustainability in their supply chains and factories have achieved cost savings, better share performance, better company reputation and some degree of consumer love – but only a handful of companies have managed to really communicate their sustainability initiatives to consumers.

As my fellow YGL (Young Global Leader) Peggy Liu stated in her latest Guardian article, we’re still at the stage Alexa Chung (as sound an eco-advocate as you’re likely to find in the modeling/TV presenting world) described in a recent article for Vogue: “Ethical Fashion: surely the least sexy words in fashion. Sustainable, ecological, organic … 

"The language of conscience-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags, and other things I’d rather not swathe my body in, thanks.” 

One of the reasons the sustainability movement lost its way back in 2009 was that sustainability practitioners developed a very complex language to describe a very complex set of issues, and while these issues may be of interest to everyone, the language used to describe them only resonates with a few. And the harsher the language the bigger the disconnect at the till - the purpose of retail is consumption and the purpose of sustainability is to reduce, re-use and recycle.

For the last 10 years we’ve sought to change behavior through information campaigns, penalties and incentives and positioning a premium for sustainable products and services – but it hasn’t worked. 10 years on the critical question is still the same: how do we build a society that consumes sustainably?

We’ve spent a long time building rational justifications but the answers, I believe, must begin with emotion.

Shopping, after all, is rooted in emotion – desire, fulfillment, identity, and survival – but we’ve hovered awkwardly at the edge, offering sensible solutions to irrational desire.

We should learn from retail’s storytelling ability – finding ways we can make the principles of sustainability come to life in a way that truly captures the imagination of people, excites them and encourages brand love and engagement.

My fellow YGL and founder of Saatchi S Adam Werbach says that the environmental movement has thus far failed because it has forgotten to connect sustainability to the aspirations of everyday people. People don’t want ‘green’—they want good quality, responsible, trustworthy brands with all the efficacy, glamour, fun or durability of the brands they're using today.

We’re asking consumers to change – to choose brands that are good for the planet and the “invisible people’ in the developing world. But people are always reluctant to change.

Just look at the banking sector – how many people are furious with bankers, were and are caught up in the rolling credit storm that began in 2008 and yet remain with the same bank today?

I don’t believe that the solution to this mess is about getting into the heads of consumers and increasing their desire for sustainable products, or marketing a whole new range of products and brands to replace the ones we have grown up consuming.

It’s about helping them choose from the brands they already know and trust, the brands they buy and see every day. Take Unilever. The company set 2015 as its target for 100 per cent sustainable palm oil as covered by GreenPalm certificates and will meet that three years early.

Unilever recently raised its own bar, after NGO pressure, and has a new goal to buy all its palm oil from traceable sources by 2020. The company now measures the footprint of its products from the soil through to bathroom shelves – but admits it has difficulty changing consumer behavior to match its own aspirations.

We need to make this simple, to normalize sustainability using traffic light systems to help navigate products and services and show that some products or brands are better than others.

f you’re committed to the cause, shop for Ecover. If you’re standing in a supermarket aisle feeling tired and hungry and reach for the brand name you love, how can you tell which is better – Persil or Fairy?

Imagine a world where the consumer will be able to see, at a glance and in a language that my dad would understand, which company has invested in its value chains, packaging reduction and elimination of damaging materials.

Imagine a global Trustmark that scores brands behavior. Imagine that a company’s annual report became the source of this story - telling everyone the benefits and competitive advantages. It seems like an infinite leap - but as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times points out, it has only taken a short six years for Facebook and Twitter and other massive online digital platforms to infiltrate the lives of billions and change their daily habits. The strength of social media for shaping social norms and spreading new concepts can’t be overestimated.

The consumer spring will only happen if we give people the ability to tell stories.

As we saw in the Far East last year, collective stories led to change. Storytelling is what makes humans unique- ‘once upon a time’ has lasted this long, and will continue, I suspect, forever and beyond.

For the last 20 years brands have been working to improve their sustainability credentials. Business has the power to improve the state of the world (socially and environmentally), but in order for consumers to choose the products which are best for people and planet, they need to be informed. Thus, democratising information of products and service is a must to change the current state of the world.

The time is right here right now for us consumers to be able to have the power to vote with our money – imagine, just imagine – and in the next dinner party we can talk about which brands we invested in to change communities, improve education, alleviate poverty and diseases, whilst at the same time delivering amazing products and service. I hope I’m invited… 

Argentinean by birth and European in spirit, Diana Verde Nieto is Founder and CEO of PositiveLuxury.com, a site that showcases positive brands and allows people to make informed buying decisions without compromising on style.

Click here to read our fabulous interview with Diana from earlier this year.

Positive Luxury’s Blue Butterfly Trust Mark tells a brand’s sustainability story in a way that is easy for people to understand and engage with, allowing them to make informed purchasing decisions at the point of purchase.

Image courtesy of Travis Simon.

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