Five sustainability trends for brands to watch in 2020

Robert Blood, founder of SIGWATCH, the activist group tracking and issues analysis consultancy, has identified five sustainability trends from his firm’s activist group campaigning data that businesses will need to take into account to protect their brands in the coming years.

1 War on plastics and packaging rages on:

We’re already seeing intense pressure from activists for commitments to reduce plastic use in general and single-use plastics in particular; campaigning has rocketed six-fold since 2015 and shows little sign of abating.

Who’d have thought that global brands like Coca-Cola, used to defending the nutritional value of their products, are now struggling to defend the containers their products come in. Brands switching to 100% recycled plastic may help to stave off some of the criticism, but without more supply to meet demand, new packaging approaches will still be required.

We can expect to see much more comprehensive waste collection systems in restaurants and stores, extended to other forms of packaging to increase recovery rates. Laminated cartons will be under renewed scrutiny because of the difficulty of recycling, with a possible backlash against non-packaging single use disposables, even hygiene products like wet wipes and single use gloves.

2 Veganism is the new vegetarianism:

Veganism is going mainstream and this time it’s for environmental reasons, not animal welfare or personal health.

This is another trend that has been driven largely by environmental groups. Campaigning against meat eating ‘to save the planet’ more than doubled in late 2019 and remains at twice 2017 levels, and five times 2013 levels. As far as activists are concerned, the push to eat less meat is critical to decarbonizing agriculture and our modern lifestyles, and is just as important as driving less and ceasing unnecessary flying.

Vegans reject all animal-sourced products, including non-food products like toiletries. We may well see vegan sections in shops, as we already see organic sections in food areas, and more vegetarian and vegan options on menus, promoted enthusiastically as ‘green and clean’, while meat moves from the core of food choices to the fringe.

Brands closely associated with meat like McDonald’s and Burger King have already anticipated this trend by adding non-meat options to their menus, but most food firms are still wedded to meat as an essential ingredient. This is not sustainable for meeting consumer demand.

3 Deforestation:

Any product whose ingredients are sourced from commodity or intensive tropical agriculture is being called into question by campaigners.

They are alarmed by increasing deforestation and biodiversity loss driven by palm oil plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of central Africa, and by soy farming and cattle ranching in Brazil, Peru and Argentina. The Amazon fires last summer triggered a spike in campaigning: activist activity more than doubled in just three months. Expect ‘deforestation-free’ products to emerge as a new category for foods and even non-foods like toiletries, with much more prominence than before, and more demand for brands to provide third party proof of thorough audits and certification.

4 Clean beauty:

We can expect to see the ‘clean food’ concept applied to personal care as consumers become sensitised by rising levels of environmental and climate anxiety from activists and the media.

This notion of combining ingredient simplicity with green sourcing is already feeding into brands such as Ren with its ‘Clean Screen’ sunscreen (‘good for the skin, good for the environment’). To exploit the ‘clean beauty’ trend, brands will need to be able to promise all ‘natural’, almost certainly organic ingredients plus declarations and transparency on sourcing and promises of no or minimal environmental impact. No animal testing will be a given, and likely, vegan certification too.

5 Low carbon:

As climate concern goes mainstream, brands will be under pressure to respond meaningfully, and easyJet with its headline-grabbing tree planting carbon offset commitment is pointing the way.

Consumer brands are beginning to adopt climate-friendly tags (cf. English Shaving Company’s no plastic all-metal razor and the advent of bamboo-handled razors, and Bulldog’s ‘carbon neutral’ moisturiser for men, whose advertising carries the slogan, ‘A smaller carbon footprint is the way to go’).

Brands will need to make carbon footprint declarations on pack and to look at ways of reducing carbon emissions, covering everything from land use in growing plant ingredients to energy consumption during manufacturing and logistics. Petroleum-based ingredients and materials, including plastics unless recycled, will also be a no-no.

SIGWATCH is a global research and strategy consultancy specialising in understanding NGOs (activist groups) and the impact of their campaigns on corporate reputation and social responsibility.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash


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