Snap back to the 1980s when the first environmentally friendly lightbulbs came to market. The compact fluorescent bulb, hailing more efficiency with a third of the energy usage than the conventional incandescent. A little more expensive, but served as an investment into your cheaper to run and brighter home. But from underneath the lacklustre glow of a bulb that took hours to reach full brightness, environmentally friendly lightbulbs became the first of many products that spawned the stigma that ecologically friendly products cost you more and gave you less.
The next three decades, punctuated by ‘eco-drive’ dishwashers that left glasses grimy and vacuum cleaners that failed to rouse specks from the carpet, people were bombarded with devastating photographs of natural disasters, polar bears stranded on an island of ice and displaced orangutans amongst the debris of their former forests. Scientific graphs shaped like a hockey stick and words like ‘carbon’ ‘greenhouse gases’ and ‘ozone’ crept into everyday vernacular. There was no choice than to become peripherally aware that human development has interrupted the natural cycle of the planet, with severe consequences.
Yet rising reports of extreme planetary phenomena and their associated guilt trips were met with lethargy. Climate change and its associated outcomes do not meet the criteria that the human risk assessment is evolved to respond to. Threats must be immediate, concrete, and absolute to demand action, like a car hurtling towards you or a serious looking envelope with your name on it. But climate change is abstract, distant, invisible and disputed, so sad stories about what human impact is doing to the environment became so abundant that it only served as an anaesthetic to the cause.
The issue became politically charged, further alienating people from the situation at hand. It became a debate as to whether or not it was real, scientists stating the facts were denounced and stripped of credibility, and the imperative for sustainable practices was polarised into the ‘good vs evil’ narrative. Political rhetoric accused the push for an ecologically balanced world as a threat to production, economic wealth and well-being. Vocal groups waving placards, with hairy faces and armpits, barefoot and shouting, became the stereotyped embodiment of environmentally concerned citizens. Environmental ideologies became synonymous with a back-to-basics lifestyle, a rejection of the technologically advanced society and the convenience lifestyle that would bring.
Even the design of eco products perpetuated the primitive narrative. Merchandise tressed up with brown kraft paper and green leaf stamps denied any benefits other than ethical brownie points as their unique selling proposition. Shelved next to mainstream products with sleek and bright design with luxuriously overzealous packaging with promises of unparalleled efficacy. Adverts for the latest and greatest used desire, humour and sexy people to sell their wares, while charities and causes used hard-hitting, guilt trips to nag you into sacrificing your money for the sake of the environment. Environmental products harked to a future of shoeless, spoon whittling neanderthals that were once on the brink of exponential progress.
Swap your trusted Fairy Liquid to Ecover, exchange the Ford for a Nissan Leaf. The sustainable product industry called for you to leave what you know for something you don’t recognise. Branding in our society has been designed precisely for this reason, you know a brand, the brand understands you, and you offer them your loyalty in exchange. Society is based on this brand fidelity. Brands act as cultural signifiers; are you a Waitrose or Asda shopper? Do you drive a BMW or a Fiat? Brands spend a lot of money to ensure that they’re projecting the right ‘feeling’ to us. Deviating from the social attachments to the brands we align ourselves with is like swapping tribes; now you’re one of those.
But perceptions are changing. The surge of trendsetting environmental brands like Tesla, which puts exclusivity as its primary message, has evolved into an in-club that we all want to be part of. Compact fluorescent bulbs have been pushed out by cheap, bright and energy efficient LEDs. Pretty celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Zoe Deschanel use their platforms to actively push the message of sustainability forward. Burgeoning campaigns, Blue Planet, and the image of the albatross with plastic in its stomach are moving the conscious demographic from those that wear sandals and whittle spoons to the mainstream population. Environmental awareness has begun to decamp itself from its political polarisation and becoming an overarching goal for many. Organic, local and natural are now symbols of wealth and moral ethics. Eco products have shed the connotation of being less effective and instead have become a symbol of awareness and worldliness.
The developing trend towards clear ethics in business has come about from a growing distrust of brands. News about retail working conditions and questionable financing has shone an unwelcome light on industries. Deaths in unsafe factories in Bangladesh, small children wading through mounds of electrical waste searching for precious metals, companies syphoning from pensions to increase their CEO bonuses have all raised serious questions about the practices of companies. With social media access directly to companies, they are now being held to account for unethical practices. United Airlines were boycotted after a video of airport police forcibly dragging a passenger off his scheduled flight was posted online. The ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoody on H&Ms online website worn by a black child sparked outcry over every social media platform. Most recently, Facebook itself had Zuckerberg live online being questioned by the Supreme Court in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica. People want to know that no one is getting a bad deal from the practices from industry, whether it’s value for money, environmental security or the well being of individuals contracted to work. Companies with questionable ethics are now having their consumer loyalties rescinded in favour of supporting brands that don’t question their own morals. A 2017 survey across 33 countries and 15 industries by Meaningful Brands found that most people wouldn’t care if 74% of the brands they buy from disappeared. And 75% of people expect brands to make more of a contribution to our wellbeing and quality of life, yet only 40% believe brands are doing so.
To capture this growing demographic of concerned citizens, and not end in the firing line that many companies that have acted unethically, industries are determined to display a level of transparency in their practices. In fact, with retailers enthusiasm to show that they are recycling-friendly, fair-trading, waste-conscious, socially-responsible and energy-conserving, there’s been a considerable amount of greenwash across the industry. They have spent millions on improving their merchandise, supply chains, systems and stores to make themselves greener and more ethical. Campaigns and marketing are taking inspiration from eco-branding of the past to redact their sins. In the car industry, classic symbols of the green meme, using ‘e’ as a prefix for new ranges and leaf motifs to nod to their environmental credentials. Ikea despite making its millions by selling extraordinarily cheap and disposable homewares, has invested in cumulative campaigns selling solar panel batteries and claims of energy independence through renewable sources, and in 2015 banned the selling of any light bulb other than LED. Food retailers are rolling back barn-bred animal produce, and the terms ‘free range’ and ‘outdoor bred’ are now plastered across dairy and meat packaging.
Once a downsell, environmental focus is becoming an upselling opportunity, and brands exploit the expectation that eco costs more. Statistics show that people are willing to spend more on products if they align with their ethical values. The Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2016 valued ethical consumer spending across all major industries in the UK at £38 billion in 2015, up from just £6 billion in 1990. Spending money on green measures also prevents profit penalties from unethical behaviour, as the survey estimates boycotts in response to animal testing, political standpoints of Palestine, tax evasions and environmental and social injustices, to cost retail £1.8 billion each year. A 2006 study by the Guardian showed that 70% of people were willing to spend above market price for a product that had reduced impact. But the study was exemplary of the skewed demographic of citizens who can afford to invest in sustainable products. Of the surveyed demographic, just 10% earned £20k or less a year, 86% had a certificate of higher education, and over half of them were aged between 35 and 55. This skews the findings considerably and identifies key signifiers of environmental purchasing; the ethics of a company is just one of many variables that contributes to a purchase.
There are various barriers to the widespread adoption of ethical shopping. The Institute of Grocery Distribution found that in a study of ethical shoppers, 52% said that price was the most important barrier to buying ethically, 31% cited lack of availability, 17% were concerned by a lack of knowledge, and lack of trust in green claims made was critical for 14%. By these statistics, it’s clear that sustainable products are increasingly becoming a luxury that many people cannot afford. In between full time work, commuting, spending time with family and friends, sorting out any combination of kids, pets, and plants, there’s little time to research the ethics of a company, make an informed shop in the supermarket with little choice, and spend up to 40% more for less packaged produce. The reclassification of sustainability as mainstream luxury has removed the tribal and low effectiveness connotations but maintained the high price point. The democracy of consumerism means that consumers have the ability to vote with their feet, but many are not afforded the opportunity because they’re priced out of the market available to them.
Unethical products have been able to undercut average market price because cost-cutting measures often come at an environmental expense. Offshore manufacture that costs the earth in air miles costs 15% less than local production. Plastic packaging costs less than more naturally occurring materials due to its lightweight properties. And forest stewardship council certified wood costs 10-20% more than uncertified. The expense of ethical products, therefore, is reflective of the true value of fair practices. And yet, when the price of unethical products creates a dramatic gap between ethical products, consumers without the luxury of disposable income to bolster shopping list budgets are alienated, transforming climate concern into climate apathy. The understanding that climate change is a real threat, but feel they cannot positively contribute to the cause.
It is imperative that ethical industry choices are made more cost-effective than those that penalise the environment to create an environmentally sustainable marketplace that is accessible to the majority. Taxes should be imposed on brands to make unethical practices more expensive, which will make it more cost-effective for brands to act ethically. The extortionately cheap prices that we’ve become used to are not reflective of an ethical world, but brands who operate ethically should get tax breaks. This should be unilateral across the globe, to dissuade companies from offshoring manufacturing and consumers from looking abroad for cheaper goods. Every citizen should have the opportunity to live an environmentally neutral lifestyle, and not be priced out by the rebranding of the sustainable movement. Soon, it will become too expensive for the world to act unsustainably, and it will cost brands far more in managing climate change than to have circumvented it.