The past World Bio Markets Conference in Amsterdam proved an interesting happening, not so much because of what was said, but more explicitly because of what was not dealt with. Sustainability was the overarching conversation topic of the conference. Although sustainability is a broad and complicated concept, companies seem to limit themselves to only a very few topics with recognizable, understandable, measurable and manageable marketing goals: recycling and lowering their carbon footprint. The reason: companies do not want to harm their existing brand. That does not necessarily mean companies do not have a much broader view, encompassing many more aspects than one may think at first sight.
Alexander Rosenlew, CEO of Orthex Group, a producer of household products with production facilities in Sweden and Finland, concluded: ‘Sustainability as a MEGA-trend is here.’ Enterprises indeed can be governed by sustainability as a mega-trend, but most speakers at the WBM-conference failed to discuss the question how to get sustainability to work in the market.
Could the market approach fall short?
Søren Kristiansen, Senior Technology Director at LEGO, repeated the conclusion from the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand global study that Belief-Driven Buyers are now mainstream around the world. According to Edelman, consumers are putting their faith in brands that stand for something and that do the ‘right thing’. But leaving aside the question whether Belief-Driven Buyers really represent a new phenomenon, one can wonder to what extent ‘doing the right thing’ includes sustainability.
Being successful in the market is a first necessity for brands and for enterprises, but sustainability in itself will not simply make a brand successful. The consumers ultimately tolerate a brand to improve its sustainability. And Guillaume Lebert of Procter & Gamble, that introduced a more sustainable Ariel-brand laundry detergent, learned that for consumers it isn’t an obvious thing to have a ‘…plant-based [product] on the shelf’. Market introduction only worked by making an ‘appeal to the right [consumer] group’.
Making an appeal to the right consumer group is exactly what small, environmentally responsible Business-to-Consumer companies like Orthex, Light My Fire and Ecover do. They appeal to a market segment that represents well-informed and responsible consumers for whom sustainability is important. Customers willing to pay more for a sustainable product or to accept a different quality. These companies are successful, but only in a niche market. Larger enterprises with established brands, like Procter and Gamble or H&M, need to overcome many hurdles when trying to successfully incorporate sustainability into their brands.
Experiences with sustainable products for a niche market cannot simply be translated to large brands. Understanding what will work and what will not, depends on a wide range of market specific topics, like the product itself, the brand and the brand image, market organization and expectations, practical issues regarding manufacturing, logistics and sourcing of materials, retail, re-use and recycling, etc. As things can become complicated very quickly, companies and brands are forced to make choices.
The apparel and textile segment is developing as a typical example
Take for instance the apparel & textile segment. During a very well attended session, the observed sustainability mega-trend proved itself in that the textile industry not only recognizes the need to become much more sustainable, but also tries to act accordingly. Thus, Kirsi Seppalainen explained why Stora Enso, the Finnish ‘renewable wood-based materials company’, is developing cellulose-based textile fibres. He anticipates the production of sustainable textiles with high input efficiency from renewable materials, designed for re-use or recycling, that retain significant value for re-use.
The industry has not come that far yet. Currently, textile companies are in a phase of defining sustainability goals. Mattias Bodin of Swedish H&M Group, with a 2018 net sales of € 20 billion, stated their ultimate goal: using 100% recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030. ASICS, a Japanese multinational corporation that produces footwear, apparel and sports equipment, has set CO2-emission reduction targets. C&A Foundation, affiliated to C&A, a global chain of fashion retail clothing stores, pursues a fundamental long-term change by transforming apparel industry business models from linear to circular.
What all companies in this segment have in common is that they aim to create sustainability value through intensive collaboration. C&A Foundation for instance acted as founding father for the Fashion for Good global initiative, a platform for sustainable innovation in the textile industry. H&M Group invests in business initiatives and research projects, and H&M is also a partner in the Effective-project, an EU-project from the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking programme, using renewable feedstock to redesign two of today’s most widely used materials: polyamides and polyesters. ASICS is acting in accordance to the Science Based Targets initiative, an initiative that provides companies with targets and a pathway to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming. Besides ASICS, many more companies from the apparel and textile segment participate in this initiative.
Supporting innovative developments gives companies a marketing advantage
Fair enough, but the apparel and textile session also referred to issues and hurdles to be taken in order to achieve the set goals. Textiles are a low value added product with a very short cycle and companies have to explore complete value chains, incorporating materials, production, retail and material and product end-use. Companies are developing new instruments and technologies to help them to achieve their ambitions. And their broad approach also leads them to support a wide range of external initiatives and developments, including many bio-based business developments and research projects. The good thing is that, because of the sheer size of the textile market, even a limited number of successful developments can have major impact.
The support of textile companies offers an appropriate and indispensable platform to innovations, helping them to grow and deliver practical results directly applicable in consumer products. By adopting innovative technology, companies achieve improved sustainability, but can also realise a marketing advantage. H&M, for instance, invests in recycling technology to dissolve and regenerate cellulosic fibres. And in a joint venture with Stora Enso, H&M develops a new way to process dissolved pulp into yarn, using less energy and less chemicals. By developing a super lightweight foam based on cellulose nano-fibre, ASICS not only claims CO2 emission reduction, but also running shoes with improved performance: lower weight and better durability. And new technologies to dye textiles reduce water usage while at the same time giving way to new bio-based dyes that can perform even better than their fossil counterparts.
Also published on Wijnand’s personal blog.
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Sustainable materials need certification and lobbies
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