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Consumer Research


OMD Sense. The sustainable consumer?

OMD Sense. The sustainable consumer?

By Ben Hayley, Insight Manager, OMD.

“Sustainability is here to stay, or we may not be.” Niall Fitzgerald, UK CEO, Unilever.

Even before the recent economic troubles, we noticed a growing desire for self-sufficiency and more sustainable lifestyles.

Nevertheless millions of Britons have seen the recession as an opportunity to reassess their spending and consuming habits.

Our State of the Nation research* tells us that just over half are planning their spending more carefully. Whether it’s throwing away less food, or living in a self-contained eco-community, people are taking steps to change the way they live.

Growing your own fruit and veg is a sure fire way to save some money and feel slightly smug.

Demand for allotments has increased to such an extent that Camden has 10 or 40 year waiting lists, depending on whom you read, and some parts of Haringey have had to close their waiting lists entirely. 330,000 people in the UK have allotments, with over a 100,000 more on waiting lists.

The knock-on effect is that people are growing produce at home too, in back gardens and window-boxes.

Perhaps the ultimate extension of this way of thinking is ‘freeganism’. Advocates raid supermarket bins for discarded, but edible packaged food, in a protest against waste, and to eat for free of course.

If scavenging from bins is beyond the pale, perhaps a Swishing event has broader appeal, for women at least. Here, women swap clothes and accessories with other women, for free.

The Instructables website has something for everyone. It features step-by-step guides about how to make a myriad of things – mountain bike trails; portable spice kits; tropical sorbets; a mini wine cellar in your closet.

Users submit their own instructions, with photos, and other users can comment and ask questions. It’s all presented in easy-to-understand language and the number
of things you can learn to make is growing by the day.

Charity shops, once largely the domain of only the old (state-pensioners) and the young
(impoverished students) have become more fashionable in recent years, as shoppers look for ‘vintage’ bargains.

Mary Portas, former creative director at Harvey Nichols, and now TV fashion guru, has taken it upon herself to revamp Save the Children shops in her new TV show. She’s also opened Living and Giving shop in London’s Westfield shopping centre, selling discounted designer donations for charity.

Charity shops have done well out of the downturn. The Association of Charity Shops said sales had risen up to five per cent every month this year. No wonder, with Victoria Beckham endorsing Oxfam shops as the place to go for a designer bargain.

These examples are indicative of a growing desire for self-sufficiency, a more sustainable way of life, and for eschewing some of the trappings of what has become the normal consumer lifestyle.

This trend has been bubbling away for some time; the economic downturn has simply placed it in the spotlight.

To what extent are these examples indicative of a wider trend, or merely a collection of fads whose popularity will rescind once economic prosperity returns?

Is mass-consumerism really a thing of the past, consigned to the rubbish bin, or recycled into something more sustainable?

Government legislation, from both Westminster and Brussels, increasingly obliges us to reuse and recycle, and to reduce the amount of landfill. The Welsh Assembly is currently proposing to ban free plastic carrier bags across Wales.

Across Europe, governments are financially rewarding drivers for trading their old bangers for more modern, ecologically-sound vehicles. So whether we, as marketers and consumers, like it or not, the way in which we shop and consume is changing.

What are the implications for brands and marketers? The slow-down in consumer appetite for the new and most modern has already evicted Woolworths, Zavvi, MFI, Adams from our high-streets.

However, the success of retailers like Primark shows that throw-away consumer culture is not a thing of the past.

Towards the other end of the retail scale, Waitrose have successfully tapped into the desire for austerity.

By promoting cheaper cuts of meat, they enabled their shoppers to save money and buy relatively sustainable products, while not affecting their own margins by cutting the cost of premium goods.

Tour operator Kuoni has launched a ‘sustainable holiday brand’, Ananea, in Switzerland, for ‘people who wish to travel thoughtfully’. Fiat recently won a Cannes Award for their eco:Drive scheme. It helps drivers improve driving efficiency by analysing their driving style.

Dashboard data captured on a USB stick is transferred to the home computer and drivers are given tips to reduce fuel consumption and wear on the car.

So it seems that, despite consumer demands changing, there is still room for brands and marketers to innovate and get involved. Promoting self-sufficiency and sustainable consumption may seem paradoxical for brands that need us to buy and consume.

The examples of Waitrose, Fiat and Kuoni show how established brands can still be of relevance through innovation and product development.

*Source: OMD Snapshots, May 2009, 700 UK adults

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