For the past decades, many brands have done things that are good for the environment seemingly as a public relations exercise. In an era of greenwashing, a creek cleanup or basic recycling program could wash away the stain of using millions of tons of crude oil each year to make everyday products. Parents could feel good about putting sunscreen on their baby from a recyclable bottle, while unaware that the sunscreen itself was derived from crude oil – and so was the bottle.
Real change was slow going. Why? Companies did not know how to make their products more sustainable and the technology to do so often did not exist. Nobody talked about where their products came from, and when the beginning of life story was grungy and filled with fossil fuels, it is no surprise companies did not want to shout it from the rooftops. More importantly, brands were not convinced that consumers cared or would pay for sustainable products. That made it risky – and ended the conversation.
How times have changed. Now sustainability is a real, non-hype priority for global consumers, and products like plant-based meat and compostable sneakers have become popular. Consumers want to know where their products come from, and having renewable, naturally-derived or recycled ingredients is increasingly a must-have. Seventy-three percent of Millennials are willing to pay more for products made from sustainable ingredients – or are made clean – and more than half of consumers pay more for sustainable products designed to be reused or recycled.
The problem is clear: consumer demand for sustainability has outpaced what the industry is supplying. But it is not because making more sustainable products is too hard, or too expensive, or requires technological wizardry. Biotechnology today can transform renewable sources like plants or agricultural waste into the chemicals and ingredients that make up our everyday products. By swapping out crude oil, natural gas, and coal- the traditional inputs – for renewable sources, we can often reduce the greenhouse gas emissions related to making our everyday products by more than 50 percent.
With big brands making headlines for adopting natural ingredients and improving supply chains – and consumers loving it – why are brands not doubling and tripling down sustainability? There is still plenty of talks – and not enough action.
To be fair, overhauling an entire supply chain is not easy, particularly with billions of capital sunk into manufacturing assets than do not deliver sustainability profiles in line with what is demand today, and there is no one size fits all solution. Corporate inertia research shows that it is actually riskier to NOT embrace sustainability. Sustainability wins in the marketplace.
We are seeing a new generation of successful companies with sustainability at the core of the business – and they are being rewarded by the consumer. Consider Allbirds, a shoe company – which sold more than a million pairs of shoes made from naturally –sourced fibers and ingredients in their first two years after launching. The brand has become synonymous with sustainability – and was recently valued at over $1 billion. Such companies are a new force that mainstream brands must respond to.
The best way for established brands to stay ahead of this insurgent sustainability and seize this burgeoning market is to get involved – and breathe life into sustainability initiatives. These initiatives bring together brands to act sustainably. These meetings of the minds to share ideas and overcome obstacles (logistical, cultural, financial) mark real progress taking sustainability from a charming niche to an economic powerhouse. Critically, these discussions also help brands hold each other (and themselves) accountable for getting it done.
The technology is here today for brands to begin slashing the oil consumed to make their ingredients and take command of the surging – and real – the market for sustainable products. It is up to us to band together and delivers.