Is sustainable consumption a myth or a real possibility? Sustainability experts, marketers, and brands have been debating this question for years. For some, it is an oxymoron; for others, it is the only way to persuade a lifestyle-obsessed society not to destroy the planet. For some, it is up to marketers to make this possible by encouraging the public not to consume more, but to consume better. For others, this is the exact opposite of what marketing should do. Of course marketing is a tool: at its foundation lies the will of the brands. How can brands play a role in creating a sustainable future?
Growth and consumption: the goals of brands
A brand is a company. Every company, as such, has a clear objective: to make a profit. And to grow. In both cases, sales are a necessary prerequisite. How do you reconcile this fundamental truth with the idea of sustainable consumption, which basically means cutting back on consumption? There would appear to be no way around this, since no brand can really consider asking its consumers to consume less. Especially in a competitive environment, anyone who wants to grab a slice of the market can only hope that the public will consume more and that everyone will indulge in more than one alternative for the same class of products. In fact, absolute customer loyalty to one brand is a bane for all others. So, can a brand really encourage sustainable consumption? One could answer that brands are run by people and that all people should have an interest in not wrecking the planet, but things are hardly that simple. Right now, a brand interested in sustainability also has other options, such as attending the second edition of GECO EXPO, a major virtual sustainability exhibition, to meet stakeholders, experts and potential customers who share their commitments.
Changing business models to promote sustainable consumption
It is not technically impossible for a brand to promote sustainable consumption while still making a profit and growing, but the commitment required to achieve this involves the entire corporate structure and cannot be limited to marketing ‘makeovers’. Fairphone, for instance, has made its corporate identity a response to the industry’s prevailing trend of planned obsolescence. The company promotes not only the products it sells, but also its aftersales support and repair services, and spare parts sales. This is because the mobile phone industry has based its growth on each device having a short lifespan, a couple of years at most, and then being replaced even if it is almost fully functional. Other brands tend to make it much more expensive to replace a part than to buy a new phone. In some cases, repair is even impossible. Fairphone has chosen a different pace and a different market niche than the industry giants, but uses a genuine commitment to sustainable consumption and circular economy as market leverage and an integral part of its brand identity.
Consuming less: less of what?
Consumption is a multifaceted phenomenon: the current trend, for instance, is to buy a lot of electronic devices, but what does ‘a lot’ mean? Everyone in the West has at least one smartphone and, if they follow the rules of the market, they change it once every two or three years – although not many manage to make phones last longer than that. This means that smartphone ‘consumption’ has grown exponentially in recent years. At the same time, it is reasonable to assume that hardly any smartphone users have, since owning one, bought any of the items and goods whose functions are performed by mobile apps. When was the last time you bought a battery-powered torch? Or an alarm clock? A printed newspaper? A wristwatch for the sole purpose of measuring time (i.e. not to be worn as jewellery or a fashion accessory)? A new camera? A calculator? A tourist map? A road map? A train timetable? All these forms of material consumption have been quietly supplanted by smartphones and online information distribution. At the moment, therefore, our landfills are filling up with fewer AA and AAA batteries, while broken airpods and earphones are set to be the next ecological disaster. Aware of the ramifications of this phenomenon, brands such as House of Marley are taking action on the problem, specifically producing these accessories with entirely recycled and recyclable materials. Does this mean we can buy fewer earphones and therefore consume less? Perhaps not, but it does mean that we can choose to consume better.