Is sustainability taking a back seat?

By Duncan Smith

People are worried about inflation and the cost of living. The Trussell trust reported that, in the past year (up to March 2023) the number of people in the UK using a food bank for the 1st time was 760,000. That’s nearly 3 million emergency food parcels and an increase in use of 37%. Those stats are genuinely scary. The increases in fuel, rent and mortgage costs have put an unprecedented stress on household budgets so we need to make compromises and environmental sustainability is on the compromised list.

Eighty years ago, American Psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with a hierarchy of needs which is usually shown as a pyramid. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization.

A chart showing Maslow's hierarchy of needs

People need to be satisfied by the needs lower down the pyramid before they can attend to higher needs so if we can’t feed ourselves or pay the bills, most people are far less likely to attend to the often costly goals of a sustainable lifestyle. There are numerous surveys showing that most Brits say that they are willing to pay more for sustainable products but in practice, most people won’t pay much more. Deloitte recently reported that the squeeze on household finances has led to a 15% reduction in people who purchase sustainable products (Down to 46% in April 2023) and Kantar found that the top barrier to sustainable choices is cost with 61% globally citing this.

At Mindlab, we have conducted numerous studies delving into sustainable behaviours and what they have all shown is that most people believe that it is the responsibility of the government, brands and corporates to lead the way and make sizable changes that matter.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Thankfully, large businesses are actually doing their bit and in many cases more so than the public realise. Unilever’s 10 year sustainable living plan set out in 2009 is a great example.

A business man with a green leaf in his front pocket

One of our biggest clients is Diageo who own brands such as Guinness, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker. They are going above and beyond when it comes to ESG.
All of the 200 plus brands across Diageo are aligned to the company’s sustainability action plan Society 2030: Spirit of Progress. Headline targets include achieving net zero in direct operations by 2030, ensuring 100% of packaging is widely recyclable and on average reducing water usage by 30% across all the drinks produced.

When I speak to people at Diageo, it is clear that they all align, and are passionate for grain-to-glass sustainability. Diageo has invested in training and sustainability qualifications for all 1200+ staff across their Marketing and Innovation teams. This is clearly not greenwashing and shows real commitment to make systemic change across their global organisation.

Tiles showing common sustainability symbols

And then there’s Apple. At the recent launch of the iPhone 15 they also released a 5 minute video sharing the work they have done to bring its entire carbon footprint to net zero by 2030. Personally, I really like what they have done and the way they have found a creative solution to share their progress with consumers. You can’t please everyone though, response to this video has been polarised and Apple has been accused of missing the big picture. It does worry me that companies are scared to share their sustainability efforts and are ‘greenhushing’ because they are fearful of people’s responses.

Whilst I’m here, I also want to thank Tanya Popeau, former advisor to the United Nations for talking to us at the Mindlab Academy about how corporates can win by using sustainability to drive growth .You can read her interview here or about our work with Hearst magazines exploring the Sustainability Say-Do Gap.

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