Sustainability should thrive not die in a cost-of-living crisis

Sustainability should thrive not die in a cost-of-living crisis

Wavemaker UK’s Jen Manning offers ways to encourage more sustainable behaviours during tough economic times.


In recent years we’ve finally experienced a measurable increase in momentum and interest, from both consumers and businesses around resolving the climate crisis.

Across the globe, a staggering 97% of citizens are now prepared to take action to live in a more sustainable way. Crucially, they expect brands to be part of this solution.

However, the way many brands have been approaching sustainability so far isn’t born from a genuine concern for people or the planet, but from the opportunity to capitalise on increased consumer demand.

When new “sustainable” products or services are added to old business models — rather than used to improve existing practices — the results are heavier costs to the business, which get passed back to the consumer with an elevated price tag.

Globally, 68% of consumers believe that better products for the environment are more expensive. In a cost of living crisis, this perception could result in sustainable living being deprioritised by consumers.

Ironically, sustainable living encourages the opposite of added expense. It’s about buying less, getting creative with what you have, wasting less, shopping locally, upcycling, repairing, sharing, and so on.

So the cost of living crisis could actually provide an opportunity for sustainable behaviours to be adopted at scale and save money for citizens in the process. 

Brands have a responsibility to make sustainability accessible to all, so now is the time to look at what changes can be made to support customers on their sustainability journey, drive value and save the planet as a result. 

So how should brands (and planners) be acting? 

Think citizens not consumers

Now is the perfect time to shift our language from ‘consumers’ to ‘citizens’ to paint a better, more rounded picture of what people need from your brand and the category within which you play.

People are not just there to consume the things we sell. They have families, needs, aspirations and passions that need to be understood to improve the way we communicate and drive change for a more sustainable future.

Businesses need to deliver sustainable solutions with people, not just for them.

Moving from ‘make-sell’ or even ‘sense and respond’ marketing frameworks, brands can look at ‘Guide and Co Create’ marketing, which looks to lead the category and the change we want, by co-creating the solutions with customers or citizens.

Now more than ever, people want to be heard and want to see brands recognising the financial and moral struggles they are facing and acting by collaborating with them to provide more long-term, accessible and supported sustainable options.

Re-write your measures of success

One of the most significant barriers to change is that businesses and marketers are still accountable to old measures of success.

The single bottom line — profit — is still king. If we’re to create and thrive in a more sustainable future, we need to measure success in terms of the triple bottom line: people and planet, as well as profit. 

In a cost of living crisis, where we’re aiming to think citizens rather than consumers, wouldn’t it be great to measure success in terms of how much money we saved people with a sustainable solution rather than pure ROI? A simple shift in KPIs takes you to a very different marketing approach.

This may appear to focus on people and planet over profit, but as proven in Kantars Purpose Study (2020), when you look after your customers and show authenticity in your actions, brand love and growth will follow.

Re-writing our measures of success and developing more balanced KPI frameworks will result in the positive change we need. As the popular Peter Drucker quote goes, “what can be measured, can be managed”, and managing the impact of our marketing actions on the planet is long overdue.

Create innovative incentives

Sustainable living in a cost of living crisis, demands frugal innovation by brands to support citizen behaviour change.

Rather than new and expensive add-ons to your existing business, consider how your current product portfolio could be made more sustainable.

For example, prolonging the life cycle of a product is an effective way of reducing waste and adding value to customers. This can be done with minor tweaks, such as selecting low-impact materials. But also in introducing resale platforms or creating a circular process for the goods you create when they’re disposed of.

According to American Express research, 40% of customers said they’d shop more with a retailer if they offered an ‘end of life’ scheme to recycle products. 

Companies that understand citizen concerns, and carefully adjust their product offering by investing in innovation, will not only help with society’s push for sustainability and value but ensure they are setting themselves up for survival in the future economy.

Help make sustainability sexy

To make any long-term contribution to championing sustainability, we need to use the strongest tool in our belt —  creating desire through smart marketing.

So far, sustainability communications feel very worthy or informative. When sentiment is so low, and outlooks for the future are more pessimistic, now is the time to add some energy and positivity to the story.

We must create social norms and desirability around sustainable choices (like buying unwrapped fruit or using public transport). As an industry, we have the skills and creativity to make this happen.

For instance, Wavemaker’s work with Trainline saw Craig David release a song and music video for a campaign of the same name, “I came by train”. It’s a phrase the brand hopes will be used as a “brag” to make train travel more attractive and inspire better choices for our planet. 

Now is the time to act. For too long, too much responsibility (and cost) has been put onto consumers and individuals to shift to more sustainable living.

Our industry can make a change, so let’s do what we do best and be the change makers our world desperately needs.

Jen Manning is a managing partner at Wavemaker UK and the agency’s in-house Sustainability Lead, heading up the UK division of its global sustainability initiative group, Greenmakers, and leading the charge on carbon reduction in support of the GroupM Decarbonisation program.

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