The "bar" I am referring to is a bar of soap. Yes, that simple soap wrapped in a colorful paper wrapper or thin paperboard box. The same kind I used to give my mother on Mother's Day, bringing a smile to her face. I like to use a bar of soap, both symbolically and literally, to illustrate how the sustainability movement - and each of us as consumers - must address the need to return to basics.
We have replaced the highly effective, longer lasting product in minimal packaging - a bar of soap - with more expensive, shorter lasting liquid soaps in complex packaging (e.g. pump bottles). Both achieve the same outcome - but have very different impacts. My friend and colleague has pointed out that just one bar of soap equates to six liters of liquid soap. In addition, we over-use antibacterial soaps despite numerous studies showing little or no added benefits over regular soap. To make matters worse, studies also show that the antibacterial ingredients are wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems.
What troubles me most is that the role marketers have in leading this shift and how consumers have bought into it so easily. I fear that brands that have created such a strong brand image as being sustainable (e.g. Method, Mrs. Meyers) have (unintentionally) convinced consumers that the carbon footprint of their products and packaging is negligible, allowing consumers to feel good - and at times even proud - about their purchases.
We need all consumers to recognize that all products and packaging have environmental impacts, and that we should minimize our consumption of both. Yvon Chouinard, Founder and CEO of Patagonia, has just launched a campaign to address this very issue.
There is another part to this puzzle. If we want people to make adjustments towards truly more sustainable options we need to provide them with good information that they can readily understand (as introduced in my previous article). We can provide common general guidance: avoid packaging or opt for more durable products. Still, as consumers become more sophisticated, they may want a bit more detail (science-based, please). Now that brands and suppliers are beginning to measure carbon footprints, consumers are beginning to better understand what that represents. But will consumers understand multiple indicators that are highly complex in nature (e.g. water impacts, social benefits) and have the ability to judge a product's or brand's impact when faced with multiple parameters? How many indicators is too many, not enough....or just right?
I applaud efforts to establish consistent indicators across an industry (e.g. Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg index) for their use by sourcing and other business decision makers. However, when communicating to consumers, I think we should strive for simplifying indicators. I believe we can focus on a handful of key indicators, which would be applicable globally. We may have to adjust how the results are communicated (again, in a simple and easy to understand manner) to ensure that the proper context is provided. For example, water consumption would need to be overlaid with water scarcity to better evaluate the impact of the product or process. I also believe we need to communicate the social and environmental benefits of a product (please see my next newsletter for more on this subject).
Managing this amount of information across all of the products we use and food we consume every day can become overwhelming very quickly. In the end, I believe consumers will want brands to evaluate the detail and simply offer only products that they can feel comfortable using.
More importantly, we must first ask consumers to consume less. This challenge requires businesses to reinvent their growth models, products and purpose. It may also require a new type of marketing - creating a longer-term relationship with the consumer based on the authenticity of brand in pursuing our shared mission of creating a more sustainable future. It is going to be a long journey, but I hope it is one that has a happy ending.