Senior Account Manager, Matt looks at the vast topic that is sustainability, its accessibility and whether it’s a form of elitism.

Sustainability is f**king complicated.

What we learnt from our coffee bars titled ‘is sustainability a form of elitism?’ is that collectively we cannot pin down exactly what sustainability means. Every time I’m involved in a conversation regarding this topic, whether it’s discussing sustainability on a micro or macro level, I always come away with more questions than answers. Even when you gather 20 senior level marketeers from some of the largest sports & outdoor brands in the world together to discuss it, the topic still remains open for further debate.

For every argument, there was a counter argument, for every valid point one way was one equally as valid to the contrary. And this was before we even got to discussing whether it’s elitist. This is not an area where we can all agree with a simple yes or no. Like with any conversation relating to sustainability there always has to be an asterisk, a caveat or a ‚yeah but’… It’s such a grey area. One would have more luck sitting on a rooftop in Shanghai trying to look out towards the East China Sea than being able to decipher the intricacies of sustainability.

So… want to know more about what we discussed and the conclusions we came to regarding whether sustainability is elitist? Unfortunately, I can’t tell you. Well not specifically anyway (chatham house rules and all that), but I can give an overview of some of the areas we covered in the coffee bar.

Within the marketing industry, where most of us work, all this can seem a touch hypocritical as essentially it’s our job to drive demand. To encourage consumption and consumerism, isn’t it? We will touch on this later on, but moving swiftly on to the actual cost of sustainability. 

It’s generally agreed that items such as cardboard boxes have increased in price with it’s popularity over plastic (let’s not get onto the topic of whether creating cardboard burns more energy than plastic). Since there has been an increase in demand, the price has soared. This obviously needs to be added to the cost of producing the product. There were many examples of how materials, packaging and therefore products have had to increase in price to allow for this. However, is there hope? Much like the airline industry, which used to only be reserved for the rich and famous, with an increase in demand came an increase in competition which eventually drove prices down and made air travel accessible for all. Could this also be the scenario for sustainable products? And, will this happen in time, or will it be too late? Overall, like with economies of scale, it’s believed this will happen, however this doesn’t deny the fact that there’s a lot of greenwashing happening out there where companies are jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick (unethical) buck.

Brands need to reevaluate their products, their business model and their messaging around how they want to be sustainable. Consumers are becoming more interested in this and are spending time doing the research. Whilst there are companies out there taking advantage through branding and wording that masks itself as sustainable, there are also many genuine businesses that fear they may be made an example of if they try to be sustainable, but don’t get their whole business model 100% perfect.  

Come on then, how many of you actually know what the icons above mean? If you’re super educated/elite, find out if you got all the answers right at the bottom of the page.

Whilst the ‘elite’ have left us for a minute to check if they got all the answers right, can the rest of us agree that imagery, terminology & what actually is/isn’t sustainable is so confusing? Well it seemed that was the case to us on the coffee bar. Does terminology and symbology need a complete overhaul, a rebrand if you will so that it can be more accessible to the masses, and thus sustainable practices more widely acted upon? 

At the end of the day we all learn the importance of sustainability in school, so can be taught what all the sustainability hieroglyphics mean there, right?! Can you sense my sarcasm coming through here?

No doubt most of you would have seen Marcus Rashford petitioning for free school meals for kids over the last year. Basically, he wants kids to be able to eat food on a regular basis. And this is in one of the richest, most developed countries in the world. So if kids in parts of the country aren’t eating lunch on a regular basis do you think being sustainable or understanding and consuming sustainably would be high on their list of priorities? By the way, this is assuming that they’ve actually been to school recently. Luckily these numbers are relatively low compared with many countries around the world, but still a challenge nonetheless.

A counter argument to this is whether elitism is even relevant when it comes to being sustainable, because whoever we are, whatever our background and wherever we’re from, we have the ability to be more sustainable. Do we need more money, a better education or more opportunity to make a difference? What if all of us made a small change regularly to our habits to be more sustainable, even if that’s using public transport, reusable bottles and actually making what we already have, last. All of these small changes combined would begin to make huge difference (#marginalgains). 

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Well we can all reduce can’t we? Take a look around you right now and I bet you’ll find an item or two that you never actually needed. Reduce is the first and most important part of sustainability, do you really need it? We all have the ability to consume less, but do we have the motivation to be able to consume less. Consumerism is a huge issue and something us in the marketing industry can’t pretend to ignore. The demand for us to have more stuff cheaper is a huge issue. I would say this problem spans the whole of society as opposed to certain groups of people. It’s all of our responsibility to carry, but to do this we need to systemically choose the environment over consumerism.

The main and most important thing to accept, whether you believe it’s a form of elitism or not, is that the sustainability train has left the station. Whether you got on at the first station or further down the track we’re all going to be part of it. 

This is a difficult and confusing topic in desperate need of a rebrand so that we can all understand how to be more sustainable. The cost of sustainability is currently higher than the status quo, but if we all attempt to do our bit, whether it’s only a 1% improvement, the demand will bring prices down. As Marketeers & brand managers we mustn’t be put off by not being perfect, it’s about being transparent and keeping it simple. This is a global example of how it’s the taking part that counts. For this to work we need to work together, pick team mates up when they fall, support when they make a mistake and high five when they score. So let’s all get to that station, let’s support and encourage others, let’s shout about it and be proud, and most of all let’s do it together because we care!

Icon Definitions
  1. The ‚Tidy man‘ – Reminder to properly dispose of waste in a bin. 
  2. Mobius loop – This means that products are capable of being recycled, but it does not mean it has been recycled before. 
  3. Check locally – This item is recycled by 20-75 per cent of local authorities in the UK, so you should check with your local council.
  4. Compostable – Place this item in with your garden waste. 
  5. Widely recycled – This item is recycled by more than 75 per cent of local authorities. There may be conditions for it to be recycled, like rinsing the packaging out, or removing the sleeve or lid.
  6. Plastics – This tells you what kind of plastic a product is made from, to help you understand how to recycle it. e.g. PET – short for Polyethylene Terephthalate. This is widely recycled. 
  7. Forest Stewardship Council – This product has been made from wood and sourced from a responsibly-managed forest. 
  8. Financial contribution – Manufacturers have made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe.
  9.  Aluminium – This product is created from recyclable aluminium – this may be a drinks can, deodorant can, or foil.
Matt Fabian

Author Matt Fabian

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