Brands missing out on £820bn opportunity by not pushing sustainability

New research from Unilever shows a third of consumers want to buy sustainable products and would purchase more if their benefits were made clearer.

sustainability
Dove is one of Unilever’s brands to have purpose at its cored

A third of consumers now choose to buy brands based on their social and environmental impact, according to new research by Unilever.

The FMCG giant questioned 20,000 adults across five countries about how sustainability impacts their purchasing choices. It then backed up their claims using information on real purchasing decisions.

It found that 33% buy a product because they believe it is doing social or environmental good. Plus one in five say they would choose a brand if its sustainability credentials were made clearer on packaging or in marketing. That equates to a €966bn (£817bn) untapped opportunity, according to Unilever, given that the size of the marketing for sustainable goods is €2.5tr (£2.1tr).

The research backs up previous claims from Unilever that sustainability is becoming an increasingly important part of consumers’ purchasing decision. Chief communications and marketing officer Keith Weed has previously admitted there is a “say-do gap” but the survey suggests this is closing.

And separate research from Harvard Business Review and Ernst and Young showed that companies with a strong sense of purpose are able to transform and innovate better, while it also helps to improve employee satisfaction.

READ MORE: Why brand purpose requires more than just a snappy slogan

Unilever is keen to push the benefits of sustainability as it has bet its growth on brands with a social or environmental purpose. Its commitment to make a positive difference is at the heart of its Sustainable Living Plan, which Unilever claims is helping it deliver faster growth, lower costs, reduced risks in the supply chain and increased trust from consumers.

Brand must act quickly to prove their social and environmental credentials and show consumers they can be trusted with the future of the planet and communities, as well as their own bottom lines.

Keith Weed, Unilever

Unilever has hundreds of brands, but claims that those such as Dove, Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s that have integrated sustainability into their purpose and products delivered nearly half the company’s growth in 2015. Collectively, they are growing 30% faster than the rest of the business.

UK and US fall behind emerging markets

Despite the findings, the trend for purpose-led purchasing is greater among consumers in emerging markets rather than those in developed. Some 53% of shoppers in the UK and US said they feel better when they buy sustainable products, compared to 88% in India and 85% in both Brazil and Turkey.

There are a couple of reasons for this; firstly consumers in emerging markets are more likely to be exposed to the negative impacts of unsustainable business practices such as poor air quality or water shortages. And secondly there is more societal pressure to buy sustainable products in emerging markets than there is in the UK and US.

Weed says: “This research confirms that sustainability isn’t a nice-to-have for businesses. In fact, the very opposite is true. To succeed globally, and especially in emerging economies across Asia, Africa and Latin America, brands should go beyond traditional focus areas like product performance and affordability.

“They must act quickly to prove their social and environmental credentials and show consumers they can be trusted with the future of the planet and communities, as well as their own bottom lines.”

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  • Dr Chris Arnold 4 Jan 2017 at 11:15 am

    It can only be good for our industry that Unilever is championing ethics and showing the way for other brands.

    As author of the book ‘Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer’, I am glad big brands are finally waking up to a simple fact that those of us within the ethical marketing community have been pitching to them for almost a decade –
    consumers care about what they buy.

    They care about people, about the environment, bout how the products and services we use affects the world we live in. And brands that embrace ethics at their core, and have appositive purpose, do better.

    But they need to be honesty and transparent too. One example of claiming an ethical plus that is dubious is Hellman’s – they only started to use ethically sourced eggs after two supermarkets threatened to ban them. And is mayonnaise really a healthy option for a society becoming obese?

    By contrast, what Dove has done – going beyond the product and make a social difference – is amazing. Proving that you can make a difference as a well as making products.

    As a parent of an under one year old (and two older kids), we are even more conscientious about what we buy. About its contents (like sugar in cereals and natural sweeteners in baby foods) as well as the consequence.

    But ethics (I dislike the jargon term ‘sustainability’ as it’s so often used as lip service) is a key consideration for many consumers.

    However, there is not one type. Ethical consumers, or ‘conscientious consumers’, have different priorities, and there are many ethical factors they consider from human rights, animal husbandry, environmentalism, social responsibility, etc.

    It’s complex and no one message works for all. So brands need to invest in insight, understand the consumer mindset and not just throw the word sustainability about or spin shallow ethical claims.

    There is also a difference between their trust in ads and in packaging – 2/3 trust the packaging only 1/3 trust claims made in ads.

    However, it’s not for all. Brands that have little or no ethics – just focused on profit – still grow. If it’s cheap, you have to question it’s ethics.

    In today’s more enlightened world, brands need to get back to the Triple Bottom Line – Profit, People, Planet and show that they make a positive contribution to the world. It’s not just the right think to do but a better thing to do for the business, as Unilever has discovered.

    Dr Chris Arnold, founder, Creative Orchestra Advertising.
    Author ‘Ethical Marketing & The New Consumer’

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