Richard Cope
Richard is a Senior Trends Consultant, bringing the latest consumer trends to Mintel clients through bespoke presentations and represents Mintel at global conferences.

Last week a client visibly winced when I insisted that they “go in 100%” on the issue of sustainability, or not at all. We were talking about values more than goals, the need to be credible and committed and how too many companies still hope the sustainability issue can be fully addressed with a dubious ‘biodegradable’ packaging launch or the tokenism of a sponsored charity. 

Ten years after pioneers like Unilever effectively made the concept of corporate social responsibility yesterday’s news, we still have well-intentioned, altruistic and yet anachronistic initiatives, in our midst. Take BA’s flagship Flying Start campaign which laudably benefits disadvantaged children, whilst sidestepping the emissions issue closest to the airline them and their customers. By comparison, Domino’s initiative to remove potholes from roads to protect their pizzas during deliveries looks a far more coherent, credible and tangible idea – and that’s not the last time I’ll champion a supposedly “lowly fast food brand” to show up the loftier competition. 

Sustainability: a forensic audit is needed

Going in 100% requires a forensic audit of your impact and footprint across every facet of business, right down to what your pension schemes are invested in. This is where even the darlings of sustainability and social impact can come undone. Unilever’s has experienced its own troubles with Indian workers exposed to mercury, for example, and we saw a backlash against Nike’s Dream Crazy campaign – once Nike-sponsored runner Alysia Montaño revealed that she wasn’t guaranteed her payments during and after her pregnancy.

Short-cuts will be exposed

Any cost-cutting or short-termism in sustainability will be found out. The modern era of forced media transparency has raised levels of exposure for brands and engagement with issues for consumers. After all, 70% of them across the EMEA region told Mintel “I find myself wanting to learn more about things than I used to (brands, social matters, etc)”.

Use social media to be honest about progress

The good news is that whilst 100% might sound daunting, modern communication platforms also afford businesses the opportunity to show some humanity and fallibility along the way to achieving these targets.

Thirty years ago companies communicated to their customers from a distance via radio, TV and print. Today, however, they talk to us on the same social media channels as our friends and relatives. This gives brands a chance to be contrite, apologetic and be honest and realistic about their progress. 

Look at how KFC turned a supply disaster into a matey apology in a classic case of Mintel’s Trend Accentuate the Negative, or how Levi’s has proudly championed getting half way to its goal of 80% of all its products being made using its Water<less innovations. 

This shared space also allows companies to identify more closely with their customers through a joint desire to become more sustainable at a corporate and an individual level. In that respect it’s a shared journey that, despite pressing needs, won’t be achieved overnight. People understand and open up about that and so should companies. 

Richard Cope is Mintel’s Senior Trends Consultant – within our specialised custom service, Mintel Consulting. He’ll be presenting on sustainability issues – and specifically how science can augment nature – in a section called ‘Supernatural’ at this year’s Big Conversation series.

For details of our Trends-based strategy projects conference presentations and innovation workshops please contact rcope@mintel.com