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Opinion: The Next Chapter in the Brand Sustainability Book

While issues like housing, the economy and the cost of living may have overshadowed environmental challenges over the last 12 months, they haven’t gone away and there are still plenty of opportunities for brands to step up to the plate and make the case for sustainability, according to Derek Bell, Associate Director, RED C.

It is mind blowing how much the world has been through in the past 10 years. If the past decade was a book, it would be a large chapter indeed.

Just think about it.

Trump and Brexit (2016), then the Covid pandemic (2020-2022), Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine (February 2022), energy and cost of living crisis, the Hamas terror attack on Israel (October 2023), and now an Israeli invasion and war in Gaza (October 2023 until now).  Like it or not, we may even go full circle with another Trump election later this year!

Let’s not forget ongoing housing, homelessness, and climate crises.

With all of these ‘pages’ in the minds of consumers, where do sustainability and the environment fit in?

Financial challenges overshadowing sustainability for consumers

According to RED C ‘s latest wave of the Consumer Sustainability Monitor, they don’t seem to feature very prominently at all, with less than half (45%) in agreement that environmental problems have a direct effect on their lives today and this down -20% versus July 2019.

Despite increased focus on sustainability in recent years, consumers still seem to be bogged down by lingering financial challenges, with nearly 2 in 3 in Ireland (especially those with children and women) feeling they cannot financially afford to make the changes needed to live more sustainably.

When bearing in mind the events of the past 10 years, particularly the cost-of-living crisis, it is perhaps no surprise then to find that the majority in Ireland agree that brands should lead on helping consumers to be more sustainable.

Do you have to be more well off to live more sustainably? Of course not.  But when it comes to certain products and services, it certainly helps.

Let’s take electric cars as an example. Consumers have gone cold in their desire for Ireland to invest in electric car charging infrastructure, down from 26% in March 2022 to 12% in March 2024.  Consumers are, for the most part, thinking short term survival, and although electric cars are in the long term reportedly more cost-effective, many cannot afford the higher payments required for this in the short term.

This short-term financial survival approach also rears its head with sustainably sourced or produced products, which tend to come at a higher cost. Given the societal shift toward sustainability, one would expect purchases of these types of products to be trending upward. However, this has been unstable at best, with latest shift being downward and only 2 in 5 claiming to purchase these types of products.

When asked what areas the government should invest in then, it is perhaps unsurprising that consumers prefer any form of investment that will help ease financial burdens for them, but primarily to buffer against energy costs in the form of offshore renewables or home retrofits.

Consumer awareness of their buying power

Despite this preference for brands and the government to bear the weight of the sustainability shift, there is a certain level of awareness amongst consumers that their personal actions do carry some weight. This comes in the form of both the environment, but also with their product and brand purchasing decisions.

In a similar vein, greenwashing is the cardinal sin these days that no brand wants to be accused of.  Consumers seem to be attuned to this, and over half claim they would strongly consider switching brands if they suspected them of greenwashing.

Yes, this implied threat from consumers of switching due to sustainability concerns seems somewhat at odds with the lack of upward trend in purchases of sustainably sourced or produced products.  However, there are some who claim to have already switched products or brands due to sustainability concerns, with this behaviour being especially prevalent amongst 18-34-year-olds.

Opportunities for brands

Deep down, consumers are aware that the ‘ship is off course’, with only 1 in 10 agreeing that Ireland is on pace to reach its 2030 emissions reduction target, down slightly since September 2023.  This continues to present opportunities for brands who are able to:

  • Present their products and services as a cost-saving measure that also is sustainable, or….
  • Educate the public on how to save money, or…
  • Engage in initiatives behind the scenes that are seen to be sustainable, or….
  • All of the above

An Post is one brand that is certainly engaging in category A, recently taking home (1) the 2023 SEAI Energy Award for ‘Energy Team of the year’, and (2) the PwC Business Post Sustainable Business Award for ‘Sustainable Public Body/Commercial Semi-State of the Year’.

The brand also offers tips for workers on how to save money while working from home, which falls into Category B.

It is perhaps no coincidence that, as evidenced in RED C’s 2023 Brand Reaction Index Full Report, An Post also ranks #1 in terms of positive emotional brand reaction amongst the financial services industry and is ranked #4 amongst 170 brands tested.

Do positive emotions directly correlate with a brand’s sustainability initiatives? According to research conducted by PR giant Edelman in summer 2023, effective environmental sustainability messaging can enhance a brand’s reach among consumers by up to a third.

Consumers generally are aware there is a problem with the environment and that Ireland needs to do more to meet the 2023 emissions reductions targets, they want brands to lead, and they also are looking for answers on how to find financial relief.

For brands, the next chapter of the sustainability book has yet to be written.  Who will be in it?

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