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People, Planet and Profit: Why Brands Forget Sustainability At Their Peril

Seeing face masks and latex gloves litter verges near my home, not to mention grocery shopping firmly back in plastic bags, it’s clear that the environment is not riding high on the agenda right now.

Needs literally must. Due to very real fears of COVID-19 contamination from reusable items, those needs mean hygienic, single-use plastic PPE, packaging and food service items. Even if more waste goes to landfill in the short-term. Government has pushed back its ban on plastic stirrers, straws and cotton buds from April until October 2020 and the 5p charge for plastic bags has been waived during the crisis.

But it doesn’t mean that brands generally, and beauty brands specifically, should forget about sustainability and – in fact – they haven’t.

So much attention has been paid to the environmental impacts of beauty consumption, since Attenborough’s shocking Blue Planet II programme, that sustainability’s broader meaning has been lost: “sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs…composed of three pillars: economic, environmental, and social— known informally as profits, planet, and people.”

Put that way, it’s clear that sustainability is holistic and interconnected, and beauty brands have been stepping up to the mark on the ‘People’ part in recent months.

Businesses from the largest, like Coty, Unilever and P&G, to the smallest like PAI, Nursem, BYBI, SpaRitual and Gallinée (and many others) have re-geared to support people through the pandemic. Making hand sanitisers, gifting products to medical workers or homeless, supporting food banks and domestic violence services, providing help to beauty professionals on furlough and more besides. On the consumer side, brands like Kiehl’s, luxury CBD brand OTTO, Tatcha and Beauty blender offer free meditation classes and Milk Makeup and Huda Beauty are shifting their Tik-Tok’s to ASMR content to help people cope with stress and anxiety.

This is both the right – and smart – thing to do. A special COVID-19 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer of 12,000 people in 12 leading economies found 65% of global consumers said how brands respond to the pandemic will have a “huge impact” on whether they buy its products in future and over half (52%) said brands “must” protect the well-being and financial security of their employees, even if it means suffering big financial losses in order to keep their trust. A further 38% “hoped” they would do it.

But these expectations aren’t new. Edelman had previously reported 78% of people thought how a company treats employees is one of the best indicators of its trustworthiness. So it’s highly unlikely that these heightened ‘People’ expectations will suddenly wither away, as the implications of the pandemic ripple through industry for months, if not years, to come.

But what about the Planet side? This is surprisingly interconnected too. There’s always been a ‘attitude behaviour’ gap where people express the desire for environmentally-friendly goods, but then make their decisions based on personal convenience, quality and cost in practice. But coronavirus may, rather strangely, have massively changed that equation.

Multiple research studies find the environment we live in has a direct impact on the danger from coronavirus. The more polluted a city? The more likely you are to die from COVID-19. We also know that discarded plastic in our water creates surfaces spreading human diseases like cholera and creating antibiotic resistance and that microplastics have a direct negative affect on the human body we’re only just starting to understand. We simply can’t separate out the two issues as we’ve mostly done before.

And people are making those connections between their personal wellbeing and the impact of consumption on the Planet. It’s hard not to when we see clear skies and water emerging during lockdown. Even if it’s spawning numerous hilarious “nature is healing itself” memes, memes always reflect a cultural truth…

So even if it’s tempting to push back that packaging redesign project or ingredients supply chain review to another time, it’s actually never been a better time to push ahead with sustainability. People, planet and profit have never been so clearly shown to be indivisible.

Free the Birds is a London-based, independent branding, design and communications agency that helps elevate beauty, health and home brands through Beautiful Thinking. Now 22 years old, its clients include Coty, P&G, Bayer, Lindt and Nestlé.

Free The Birds’ Brand Insight & Content Director, Joanne Bell, has spent over 20 years bringing Big Ideas to life for brands as diverse as BP, P&G, Coty and Bayer, from brand strategy and thought leadership to copywriting and event design. Diversity, inclusion and sustainability in brands and businesses is both a personal passion and particular focus of her work.

The Red Tree is the UK’s leading international beauty brand consultancy and a powerhouse of ideas, insight and inspiration. For an informal discussion on how we might help you, please contact us.

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