Sustainability – who cares?

Mark Hobart
By Mark Hobart | 29 November 2023
Marh Hobart.

The evidence suggests people care about sustainability and want to make more sustainable choices. Clearly, brands need to improve their practices to meet this customer need – that is a necessary, but not sufficient solution.

People want to buy sustainable products, but buying decisions can be difficult for a range of reasons: unclear sustainability messages, questions over credibility versus marketing hype, and concerns about product efficacy compared to that of non-sustainable products.

The result is that at decision-making time consumers do not always follow through with their desire to “buy sustainably”.

Despite the push to buy sustainable products, brands aren’t helping people make informed decisions. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recently reported that 57% of 247 businesses reviewed made concerning claims about their environmental or sustainability practices. The ACCC are currently prosecuting some businesses with plans to take legal action against several others. Some whole sectors over-indexed, with 60% or more businesses making unsubstantiated claims – notably cosmetics, closely followed by clothing, and food and drink. 

Are businesses deliberately misleading Australians? Or are they also simply ill-informed and accidentally misleading? Are they just ill equipped to manage this complex area? And are they considering how people make decisions at point of purchase?

Let’s take a close look at some categories and brands that are helping people make sustainable choices by leveraging how people make decisions.

The Halo Effect – with retailers leading the pack.

One of the ways people make decisions is to rely on authority bias. Think about how a person in a white coat is a credible messenger for scientific product claims or a sportsperson is seen as an authority on the best sports shoes. Authority bias is a mental shortcut that means we do not have to put in the work to check information and is often referred to as the halo effect.

Because sustainability is a complex issue, the halo effect is powerful. This year, Coles announced the decision to partner with Planet Ark, ‘Australia’s most trusted environmental organisation’ rather than go it alone. The retailer has been a leader on this issue for several years, but even they acknowledged they needed technical support and the credibility that a not-for-profit brings. The Planet Ark partnership brings them this authority and credibility, and has a halo affect for people wanting to lean toward buying sustainable products.

Retailers in general act as an authority, which is why, in the food and drink sector, it is retailers that have been leaders in the field with Woolworths topping the list in a recent The Australian Financial Review ‘Sustainability Leaders’ list. Whereas the ACCC review highlighted food and drink as categories that over-indexed on making concerning claims, the retailers are seen to be playing fair in this area and the halo affect is working for them. (Both Woolworths and Coles appeared in the top brands for fairness in a recent TRA survey.)

Is sustainability a contradiction in fashion?

Fashion was another category identified by ACCC as a bad case of unsubstantiated claims. Perhaps surprisingly so, as fashion brands have been very active in the sustainability movement, as has the industry association. The Australian Fashion Council promotes sustainable practices, quoting 220,000 tons of clothing ends up in landfill each year. That figure is not surprising when they also reveal that on average consumers each buy over 50 new items per year. Therein lies the challenge. Fashion marketers want us to buy more, so how can they make a circular economy model work?

Fashion purchase decisions are strongly driven by social norms. Fashion is part of our identity, resulting in decision making heavily influenced by what other people in our social groups are wearing. You only have to look at street fashion in Sydney vs Melbourne to see the different dress codes that reflect the vibe of those cities (yes, climate plays a part too, but you get my meaning).

Many boutique brands have started from a position of sustainability. Wearing their clothes tells people that you are supporting the sustainability movement. Different brands hero different aspects of sustainability, but they all make it central to the brand’s identity.

Vege Threads is a Melbourne based brand that makes clothes from organic and eco-friendly materials. They use completely, 100 per cent organic and eco-friendly materials such as hemp, 100% GOTS-certified organic cotton, and natural plant-dyed textiles. DK Active uses solar panels in its production facilities. New Zealand-based sustainable fashion designer Maggie Marilyn Hewitt makes clothes from recycled plastic.

Long established brands are being forced to play catchup, though there are plenty of opportunities for them to use their scale to do that, and to leverage social norms to their advantage along the way. Scale matters because the sustainability problem is not one dimensional, it is systemic. Sustainable fashion needs a two-pronged focus – the materials and production processes that are used to make the garments and, secondly, what happens to them when we don’t want to wear them anymore.

Getting involved in second hand clothing is a sustainability imperative. Many other sectors make this work, automobiles for example. And it is not new to this category. Vintage clothing, for example, is recycled fashion. Big brands could make recycled clothing into a fashion statement, an overt sign that you are doing the right thing by the planet.

Major transformation programs take time and investment; however, and the poor ACCC results probably reflect this, explaining why large fashion brands’ advertising claims are getting ahead of their operations.

Mind your language – brands need to find clear trigger words.

We talked earlier about how people take mental shortcuts and one of the ways we see this work against making sustainable purchases is clarity of language and claims. One of the biases that comes into play is that we anchor to a word or a phrase.

Malcolm Gladwell coined the term ‘thin slicing’ in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. People ‘thin slice’ information and rely on first impressions or snap judgements to make a decision. The thin slice – valuable in many situations - can be inaccurate when we’re unaware of our biases or don’t have enough information. For example, the first impression of a product’s packaging that claims ‘low fat’ will make most consumers think the product is ‘healthy’ without checking the sugar content or other ingredients.

The same applies to sustainability claims. Next time your team are researching people’s sustainability choices, try this: Instead of asking whether they prefer to buy sustainable products, try asking how they know if a product or brand is sustainable. When we talk to people, we get more questions than answers: What does compostable mean? Eco friendly? Kind to the planet? What does this symbol mean? Are the ingredients sustainably grown? Is the packaging recyclable, was it made from recycled materials, are the ingredients going to pollute the environment?

Sometimes - though not always - sustainable products carry a higher price, and if people cannot distinguish between marketing hype and real value from a planet-friendly product then it is hardly surprising that people are confused and likely to default to what they usually buy.

Another problem that anchoring to a phrase causes is that it can become associated with product quality. For example, many people do not believe that eco-friendly cleaning products are as efficacious as mainstream products because they are anchored to the chemicals in traditional products as the cleaning agents. In this case, ‘chemical free’ can confirm a negative association instead of a positive benefit.

To keep brands honest with their use of language, ACCC have established guidelines for the type of claims and the language that can be used to talk about sustainability.

The message from ACCC is clear: “If you make a claim about the environmental or sustainability benefits of your product or service – make sure it’s right, and if you are unsure or can’t substantiate these claims, then don’t make the claim.”

From consideration to conversion

The ACCC guidelines may help to ensure that sustainability claims are true and verifiable, but brands will need to be creative to turn a desire to buy sustainable products into a purchase.

It’s clear that people want to buy sustainable products but turning desire into actions requires navigating roadblocks caused by how the human brain is wired to make decisions:

  • Our herding instinct can be used to advantage: By brands by presenting themselves as the sustainable choice that many people are making. Visible signs of sustainability credentials is one tactical option.
  • We all anchor to key trigger words or images: Making simple, clearly defined statements that avoid the taint of ‘marketing hype’ is critical. But we also need to connect with the benefits that people buy into categories for – reframing ‘chemical free’ to ‘environmentally safe’ ingredients for example.
  • People are susceptible to the halo effect: Making third party or independent endorsements can be a valuable shorthand for sustainability. Planet Ark is one good example.

Brands can use these biases to help their customers make simple decisions that will make them feel good about their choices and convert desire into action.

Mark Hobart, Managing Partner Melbourne, TRA

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