With UK inflation still painfully high, the cost of living crisis is the dominant topic of 2023. However, with glimmers of hope that the cost crisis is easing, the ever-present spectre of climate change continues to threaten long-term survival. Sustainability is an imperative that cannot be ignored, even as society faces other challenges.

Brands are at the heart of ensuring a sustainable future, with consumers seeing them as pivotal in the fight against climate change. For example, 91% of consumers expect businesses to have a positive impact on the environment through their operations while helping them make better, more sustainable choices. Even during this cost of living crisis, where price has been a significant purchase driver, UK consumers are still making consciously sustainable choices when buying products and services.

A virtuous circle of sustainability

Sustainable marketing is not a new concept. However, the role of marketing in driving sustainable behaviours is becoming increasingly important. The circular economy is one way we can explore sustainable marketing in context. It is based on four tenets: longer use, reuse, refurbishment and recycling. It is the antithesis of the throw-away society that has dominated much of the last century.

Ultimately, a circular economy means less production. What is produced is highly durable, high quality and recyclable. This requires a step-change that replaces pure growth as an indicator of success towards one that includes sustainability as a critical indicator. This means that capturing data related to sustainability is a vital KPI for organisations and will be used by savvy brands as a motivator for consumer loyalty.

Here we explore how sustainable marketing not only supports a circular economy but will also help ease the pressures of rising prices.

Products as investments 

In March last year, the European Commission proposed new EU consumer rules, including “consumers will have a right to know how long a product is designed to last for and how, if at all, it can be repaired.” For example, phone manufacturers have long been under pressure to increase lifetime support for their devices while also fighting accusations of planned obsolescence. Alongside this, the EU also called for end to fast fashion by 2030; a ‘crackdown on throwaway culture.’

It is all designed to encourage a shift from buying cheap, low-quality products in the short term to longer-term investments in goods that will last. Brands have a responsibility to create higher quality and durable products which have a longer shelf-life, while product release cycles should be extended to include significant and radical advancements.  Focus on quality, maintainability, and durability can also be met with extended support for older products.

For consumer tech devices, for example, this can be supplemented with capturing usage data to determine customer needs and respond. As such, customers should be persuaded to use their devices longer through the benefits of sustainable marketing practices, such as the promotion of complementary services such as apps and the provision of maintenance tips and how-to guides. This all engenders long-term loyalty while opening up revenue streams that don’t call for resource-heavy production.

A radical shift to reuse

Recent research by WRAP, a climate action NGO, suggests that reusing items currently discarded could save UK households between £2 and £8 billion per year. This has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by between 1.5 to 3 million tonnes. It estimates, in total, 300,000 tonnes of discarded products in the UK could be suitable for reuse.

Another report from December 2022 also suggests that the cost-of-living crisis has created a £150bn boom in second-hand goods, globally. For example, Vinted, an online marketplace for second-hand fashion and Lithuania’s first unicornstartup, is now Europe’s biggest app for buying and selling used clothes.

With 64% of consumers saying it is important to purchase from brands that inspire social responsibility and charitable giving, reuse is an opportunity for brands to engage customers in resale or donation efforts. It can be supported by marketing tactics such as providing discounts and other incentives for resale to approved resellers or charities. Brands can form partnerships with resellers and charities to monitor transactions and report as part of demonstrable CSR.

As WRAP explains, ‘reuse offers people the opportunity to access goods at a lower cost, whilst also offering an income to businesses which trade in reused items.’ Reuse, therefore, shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to growth but as an opportunity for brands to build meaningful engagement alongside unique revenue opportunities.

Capitalise on the trend to mend

Inspired by the BBC’s popular show, The Repair Shop, the ‘trend to mend’ has ballooned in the face of the cost of living crisis as more people seek to repair rather than replace. For example, The Guardian reported that Currys typically carries out 860,000 fixes a year on laptops, TVs and phones but forecasts a 10% rise this year as customers’ budgets come under pressure.

Like reuse, refurbished products can be made to look and operate as new products with minor repairs and maintenance, usually carried out by certified partners or the manufacturer. The marketing aim should be to get customers to purchase refurbished products. In the UK, the right-to-repair regulations apply to a small selection of products bought from July 2021 but will not come into full effect until summer 2023.

For brands, there are numerous opportunities to get in on this trend. Whether offering discounts on refurbished products for existing customers in upsell or cross-sell opportunities to promoting refurb partners and creating marketplaces for refurbishment resellers.

Consumers are increasingly eager to engage in reuse and repair markets. Those brands that offer support for this are not only opening up new revenue opportunities but will align with consumers’ shifting values.

Closing the loop

With nearly nine in ten consumers saying they’d be willing to change which products and services they buy to combat climate change, brands must act now by investing in sustainability capabilities that embrace circularity. Not only that, but they should also invest in promoting those capabilities to their audience, driving loyalty for the future.

Marketers have a unique ability to change mindsets and influence behaviour and inspire people towards a new way of living. Not only will this new mindset support long-term sustainability but will also support consumers to weather the storm of financial uncertainty by reducing spend on ultimately disposable goods. As marketers, we must contribute to the societal shift away from the throwaway to the circular, or risk both the planet and pocket.

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