How to build a sustainable brand: 5 learnings from The Grocer Conference

This week, The Grocer’s conference on ‘How to build a sustainable brand’ brought together challenger brands, multinationals, NGOs and others to discuss the key issues in FMCG today. Read on for our roundup of the event’s key takeaways.

1. Brands must avoid ‘tunnel vision’ on sustainability issues

It’s vital that FMCG brands approach sustainability holistically and avoid championing certain environmental or social issues at the expense of others.

In a discussion on net zero targets, Dan Crossley of the Food Ethics Council reminded attendees that the current momentum around carbon mustn’t slow progress in other areas: “Brands must avoid having tunnel vision on climate alone and make sure that they are thinking about all those other environmental impacts: biodiversity loss, social impact, etc.”

Victoria Sjardin, VP of Marketing at Kraft Heinz, echoed this sentiment in a panel on sustainability communications. “It’s important to land simple messages with consumers but also to be responsible, and understand the framework of how we think about sustainability holistically.” She cautioned against making decisions to reduce impact in one area which might have detrimental effects in other areas, not least because “Gen Z has never been faster or more able to understand the full business intent.”

“It’s important to land simple messages with consumers but also to be responsible, and understand the framework of how we think about sustainability holistically.” – Victoria Sjardin, VP of Marketing at Kraft Heinz

2. Customer-friendly frameworks will be key to driving behaviour change

“There are customers who would do something different if they knew what that was,” argued Susan Thomas, Senior Director of Sustainable Commercial Activities at Asda, in a panel exploring evolving shopper priorities.

Thomas highlighted the industry’s progress on communicating complex nutritional information to customers with traffic light health labelling. She believes the FMCG industry needs to deliver comparable education on sustainability issues: “From that data information understanding perspective, we’re a long way behind on the planet side of this conversation. Some products have put a carbon footprint on their packaging, but in isolation I don’t really know what to do with that number as a consumer. And of course, carbon footprint is not the only consideration – how are we going to collectively and consistently communicate these complex interlinked issues, so that customers can make important choices? I think that’s going to be a body of work for us as an industry for the next couple of years.”

“Some products have put a carbon footprint on their packaging, but in isolation I don’t really know what to do with that number as a consumer.” – Susan Thomas, Senior Director of Sustainable Commercial Activities at Asda

3. Don’t underestimate the proof required by regulators

Katie Vickery, Partner & Head of the International Food Law Team at Osborne Clarke argued that proof was key to minimising risk for sustainability marketers, particularly in light of regulators’ increased focus on FMCG sustainability claims. She described how she’d seen a number of brands “put forward what would seem to be very credible substantiation [to the ASA], and actually that’s been knocked back.” Her advice for brands was not to underestimate the extent of substantiation required: “If you look at the trends that we’re seeing in terms of regulators, you get a sense of actually how far now marketing teams need to go when they’re coming up with their brand names or marketing slogans.”

But Vickery also offered marketers hope, in the shape of new guidance from the CMA, due to be published in summer 2021: “We’re going to get some really specific points around the different types of environmental claims that people can make.”

Victoria Sjardin, VP of Marketing at Kraft Heinz, urged a holistic approach to sustainability

4. ‘No one can fix this alone’

Cross-sector collaboration was a key theme throughout the day, and it prompted a fascinating debate on where responsibility lies for encouraging shoppers to make better purchase decisions. Rob Metcalfe, Richmond & Towers, argued that retailers must take the lead: “The majority of brands don’t have sustainability as their raison d’etre. I don’t think brands can do it on their own.” Others stressed the need for a system-wide approach. ASDA’s Susan Thomas suggested that  “a partnership between brands and retailers” was key to making sustainable shopping easier for customers. Jenny Costa, Rubies in the Rubble, agreed that brands have a big role to play, alongside retailers and government: “I would say that brands do have a really strong role to play in this. Purpose-driven brands can transform a category.”

In a keynote on net zero targets, Tesco CEO Ken Murphy also raised the importance of collaborating with suppliers, explaining that Tesco’s progress on carbon was only possible thanks to buy-in from its own-label suppliers: “By working to get our own house in order, we’ve learned lessons we can apply to the broader supply chain and we’re sharing our journey with suppliers. No one of us can fix this alone.”

“Retailers want to list products that have a sustainable message and reflect their values well. It’s really exciting to see that change.” – Jenny Costa, Rubies in the Rubble

5. Sooner or later, sustainable brands will reap the rewards

According to Jenny Costa, Rubies in the Rubble, both retailers and consumers have doubled down on sustainability issues in the last year: “Retailers want to list products that have a sustainable message and reflect their values well. It’s really exciting to see that change.” As for customers, she spoke of a huge rise in demand from zero waste stores, and explained that customer engagement in influencing business decisions is higher than it’s ever been.

But whilst investment in sustainability will pay off for brands, Ben Greensmith, Tony’s Chocolonely, suggested that this may still take time: “At the moment the companies that do good are at a commercial disadvantage, but I think in a few years time, those that don’t will be at a disadvantage.”

 

To find out how Provenance can help your brand with holistic, customer-friendly and proof-backed sustainability communications, get in touch.