‘We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly’ is frequently emblazoned across my Instagram feed. With influencers as the lead singers, NGOs and activists as the bass players, and brands producing their interlude, this indispensable message has become a chorus in the hope that many people will start humming the same tune.
In 2019, this message is imperative and I welcome it wholeheartedly. Why? Because, if we backtrack to May 2017, and take a look at author Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s ‘Theory of the Aspirational Class and Sum of Small Things’, we can see that buying organic, recycled and ethical was reserved for the elite. In her book, the author and researcher documented how high-net-worth individuals were displaying their elitist status through their ethical consumption habits, carrying NPR tote bags and saving the planet by buying clothes made from recycled plastic.
And of course, when there is consumer demand, brands cater to this need through supply.
As a brand strategist, at the time I remember sharing these findings with my clients, encouraging them to align their communication strategy and product offering to target this consumer group.
Forward thinking brands took note. Hook. Line Sinker. The influx of high-end, eco-luxury labels creating recycled clothes and yoga tops for $190 followed suit. Presented in cardboard boxes, bamboo toothbrushes and zero-waste beauty products filled the aisles of Wholefoods.
In the same year, the first zero-waste supermarket store arrived in the UK. Launched by former Manchester United footballer Richard Eckersley and his wife, Earth Food Love was created with the mission to inspire consumers to reduce their plastic consumption and shop ethically.
At the same time, Lush created ‘naked packaging’ and their cosmetics shedded their plastic skins.
That year, Lush saved 800,000 plastic bottles going to landfill. Since then, the beauty retailer has created ‘naked’ and plastic-free stores across Europe and announced the arrival of its first packaging free store in the UK earlier this year.
These product arrivals promised to be a good starting point for laying out the path to where we are today. Yet, whilst these business concepts are a great start, what we need now is for recycled and zero-waste products to move from niche, to necessary.
We need zero-waste in our everyday stores. Our Sainsburys and Tescos to be zero-waste. Our high street stores need all our clothing to be made from recycled materials. We need our Boots to have Lush’s naked packaging beauty and grooming products.
The very fabric of our everyday lives needs an upheaval in the way we approach sustainable practices. The power for change lies in everyday consumerism. We need sustainable consumerism to become democratic in sensibility.
This brings us back to the opening statement. In order to move from a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly and see millions of people doing it imperfectly, we need to move from eco-luxury, to eco-mainstream. Ethical spending should not only be aspirational, but essential and economically sustainable for every day consumerism.
Brands and governments have a pivotal role in ensuring we move from eco-niche to eco-mass. Each time a big league and accessible brand takes an sustainable standpoint, we all collectively work towards a critical goal to save the planet.
What is positive is that we are getting there. We are seeing more accessible brands are working towards bringing sustainable practices in to the mainstream. This year, Adidas announced plans to double their production of ocean plastic trainers in 2019. Over in the USA, New York has announced plans to ban single-use plastic bags by 2020. Following swift on the heels of California, New York is the second state to take the pledge. These changes are setting the barometer for a new standard for consumerism, whilst at the same time sewing the seeds for behavioural change.
We are now at a tipping point. We need more everyday consumer brands and government legislation to move the world to eco-mainstream.