Last Saturday, I went to Earthquakes in London, a National Theatre/Headlong production here in Bath, UK. It was an epic play, essentially about the end of the world. The timeline stretched from the swinging sixties to some centuries into the future. The production looked at how we respond to information about the impacts of overpopulation, resource depletion and climate change.
Although its focus was broad – almost cosmic – at its heart was a very personal story about particular people, their relationships and choices. It posed uncomfortable questions about how we face up to corrupting influences, both subtle and obvious, to live out our personal responsibilities. And although all that might sound hard-going, the production was far from ‘worthy’. I think all of us left the theatre, challenged by a rather difficult question: Why can’t we all respond more decisively to difficult messages about our impact on a planet whose resources are dwindling?
The play made me reflect on my very recent experiences with some major players in the food industry.
A couple of weeks ago, I made the opening presentation at a food industry conference on sustainable sourcing. My job was to talk about the ‘drivers for change’ and I had been asked to focus on the role of consumers. This was, of course, a challenging brief as most research data shows that sustainable sourcing is a much lesser priority for them than, say, price – even among engaged consumers.
I was given some great data for the presentation by The Futures Company taken from their Global Monitor survey. This made the case clearly: consumers are not prioritising sustainability in their purchasing decisions – and the pattern is pretty similar around the world. There is evidence consumers will punish brands that become recognised as sustainability villains, but generally the convictions of all but the darkest green consumers don’t translate through to decisions to spend with those doing good.
In my speech, I concentrated on the role of big companies as it is very clear to me that the major brand owners are acting fast to transform their businesses towards a more sustainable footing. This is despite, rather than because of, consumer pressures. Currently, I think this is the biggest driver for change.
Another event I attended last week was the high-profile launch of a new sustainability plan from one of the biggest brand owners. This was an expensively organised, private affair run as a live, televised webcast. I won’t name the company; suffice to say the great and good were there and, to be fair, the plan they presented was well thought through. But I was left with a sour taste in my mouth because the whole event was so staged. Everyone was on message and we were given the impression that sustainability is simply another example of why this brand is great. There was very little space for dialogue. Despite the appearance of a live feed where anyone could ask a question, that simply wasn’t the case. I left the event frustrated.
Recently, Professor John Beddington, the UK Government Chief Scientist, set out his vision of the perfect storm that faces us – the ‘nexus’ of food, energy and water shortages interacting with and worsened by the effects of human-induced climate change. In his view, the outcome of these interacting forces will amplify the individual effects and cause the impacts to hit us sooner – perhaps in the next 20 to 30 years. I don’t think it is reasonable to suggest his views are only of interest to specialists – information about global resource depletion and the need for sustainability is widely available in mainstream media. But it seems that consumers don’t want to, can’t or don’t know how to respond to bad news about sustainability.
Sadly, the communications departments of many large companies aren’t taking it seriously either as they mostly continue to see sustainability as a ‘good news’ story. Their marketing advisors see it as just another promotional gizmo for their brand.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Usually privately, sometimes publicly, some big brand owners see the problem and are taking responsibility for motivating consumers. Unilever, for example, is looking hard at how it will need to influence its consumers towards more sustainable lifestyles if it is to achieve its Sustainable Living Plan.
Five years ago, we sustainability professionals were looking hard at the disconnect between companies’ sustainability communications and their lobbying practices. It was easy to make the case then that saying you wanted to do good, while campaigning to be allowed to do bad, was a problem. Most responsible companies got the message.
Perhaps we should now turn our attention to the slew of shallow sustainability marketing claims and make sure these start to be better aligned with and integrated into a company’s broader strategy.
We need to be sure that the sustainability shine is ‘the real thing’.