Sustainability may be an imperative but it is facing the challenge of rising consumerism and growth in the region. WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo looks at how brands and marketers in Southeast Asia can balance these two opposing forces.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on conscious consumerism in Southeast Asia. Read more

Sustainability is Southeast Asia’s climate change imperative. But it’s happening at a volatile time when the region is undergoing rapid transformation and experiencing a drastic rise in consumerism. The key challenge that marketers in the region will face is balancing these two opposing forces in an era of conscious consumerism.

But this also presents the region’s biggest opportunity. According to a new report by Bain & Company and Temasek, Asia’s green sector will see US$1 trillion in economic opportunities by 2030 but only US$15 billion has been invested since 2020.

However, the question marketers are grappling with is how? How can brands operationalise and market their sustainability efforts without being accused of greenwashing? How can they toe the line between profit and purpose?

The reality is that collective action is needed to address deep institutional and industry-wide change. This is why this Spotlight edition looks to include voices not just from the marketing and advertising industry but from the non-profit and startup sector too. We look to the experts to get a pulse check on-the-ground, understand the cultural barriers of sustainability marketing in Asia and be inspired by new business models disrupting the way for a more circular economy in the region. Building off the best practice from our WARC Guide to netzero marketing, here are four key ways our contributors shared about navigating conscious consumerism in Asia.

Brands must grow the market and onboard new conscious consumers

According to Kantar’s Asia Sustainability Foundational study, 54% of consumers have stopped buying products and services that have a negative impact on the environment and society – but this is still the tip of the iceberg.

Unlike more mature markets, the reality is that the sustainability movement in Southeast Asia still has a long way to go, with a wide gap between what consumers feel and do.

Many contributors agreed that the onus and opportunity for brands in Asia is to grow the market and stoke demand for conscious consumerism. But what are the cultural nuances and challenges marketers need to overcome in order to onboard more consumers?

  • In Southeast Asia, there’s still a strong aspiration to own: Our GWI report shows that although 72% of consumers would pay more for an eco-friendly product, 61% would prefer to own a product/service and only 17% of eco-conscious consumers purchased a secondhand product in the last week.

In our interview, Wei Zhang, co-founder and CEO of circular tech platform Lendor, shares how it’s responding to this challenge by specifically designing a “rent-to-own” program that provides the possibility of ownership for consumers while giving them options.

  • Value propositions cannot lead with green messaging but with something practical: Wei Zhang also shares how brands cannot take a purist approach because: “Business and consumers in this region, especially Singapore and Thailand, tend to be more pragmatic… Leading with green messaging probably works with niche segments. But if you want to grow the market and make this mainstream, it has to be the other way around.”
  • Promoting climate literacy starts with local context: There are multiple races and languages in a diverse region where sustainability messaging can risk getting lost in translation.

That’s why Sue Yee Khor, pioneer of the Zero Waste movement in Malaysia, shares that “educational resources must be based on local context and accessible to everyone, such as covering all kinds of major languages spoken in that particular country. For example, in Malaysia there are certain items that cannot be recycled whereas it can be in Singapore… Or there are technical terms such as composting or the circular economy that are hard to translate.”

Effective sustainability strategy is an organisational strategy

“Over the next few years, the Sustainability Imperative will disrupt the ways we live, work and do business more radically than anything we have seen in our lifetime,” writes Andy Wilson, senior partner, sustainability at Ogilvy Consulting.

However, according to a recent Kantar and dentsu survey of APAC corporate sustainability actions, marketing and insights lagged behind all other divisions. Only 36% of CMOs and brand managers claimed to be executing against the strategy and measuring progress, compared to 56% in corporate strategy and 40% in R&D.

It is clear that organisations must change how they think and behave in order to have an effective sustainability strategy. Our contributors agree that a key component requires rethinking how marketers view, engage and collaborate with stakeholders.

  • From shareholder to stakeholder capitalism: Suzy Goulding, director at MullenLowe Sustainability, writes about a shift from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism.

“This is even more crucial in Southeast Asia where a sense of community responsibility is paramount in many societies, where many countries are still developing and there is a need for public and private sectors to work together to improve infrastructure and livelihoods.”

  • Co-own the value chain with ecosystem partners: Rachel Ooi, chief growth officer, CXM, dentsu APAC, makes a case for recalibrating the role of the CMO in order to address the complex challenges of today.

“CMOs have to move away from messaging and campaign-driven thinking, towards ‘systemic thinking’, regarding themselves as stewards of a living brand within an ecosystem where consumers are as much stakeholders as they are potential customers.”

  • Rethink consumers as citizens: Bonnie Chia, WWF’s head of brand, writes about how the movement blurs the line between consumerism and citizenship, therefore challenging us to reframe how brands view their customers.

“What happens if we change our ‘consumers’ to ‘citizens’ of this co-shared planet and look at a lifetime of trust and profitability? Consumers as citizens will create impact and ripple effects way beyond their communities (and exceed the values) but on the planet.”

But where and how should brands start implementing their strategy?

  • Diagnose and develop a “sustainability landscape”: “Marketing strategy is built on landscapes that are defined by market and customer value. However, a sustainability strategy requires its own landscape, one that integrates the assessed impact of sustainability onto the organisation’s business model, as well as its key stakeholders,” writes Andy Wilson in his piece about how to generate better returns on your sustainability efforts.
  • Learn from the experts: Nathaniel Gregory, services and sustainability leader at sports goods retailer Decathlon, shares some advice from the brand’s transition into becoming more sustainable.

“Sustainability is also a team game where there is an opportunity in the ecosystem to leverage on… We recommend that the brand’s internal sustainability team work alongside and learn from external partners if the brand intends to scale at speed.”

  • Focus on what matters most – what sustainability reporting calls “materiality”: Angela Noronha, Strategy Consultant writes that “You don’t need to understand the full laundry list of issues and options, but knowing the top 3 inside out is absolutely crucial because that gives you a north star for assessing whether the comms and strategy are credible and focused on the right stuff. Without that, you have no basis upon which to push back or direct content apart from the public’s reactions to past similar campaigns.”
  • Partner with local manufacturers: “Global fashion brands need to support them both in planning and financially to help them become sustainable. For example, the Inditex group has a partnership with Vietnamese manufacturers and academic institutes such as RMIT Vietnam to solve the waste management problem in manufacturing,” writes RMIT University’s Rajkishore Nayak and Soumik Parida, in their retail category and market focus piece on Vietnam.

Sustainability strategy includes Purpose, Profit and Planet

If brands must include a wider spectrum of stakeholders in their sustainability strategy, then it must be inclusive. This is an excellent point made by Shagun Sethi in our previous Spotlight on India and echoed by our contributors too.

Felicity Pascoe, senior gender equality, disability and social inclusion advisor and founder of Thread To Fabric, writes: “Climate change is more than an environmental crisis. It’s a social crisis. Brands need to understand the social impacts of climate change and how it worsens social inequality.”

However, in our APAC Purpose Incorporated report, connecting the dots between business growth and profitability was cited as a key barrier to progress among APAC marketers. Lendor is able to prove that beyond having empathy for marginalised groups, being inclusive can also make business sense by providing new use cases for products and services for an unserved segment.

Make sustainability issues tangible

One of the key barriers that can get in the way of an effective sustainability strategy is that the transformation can be riddled with confusing technical jargon and intimidating language. This can alienate the very internal and external stakeholders that a brand needs to engage.

Contributors agreed on the need to break down sustainability issues into tangible signals and simple narratives that stakeholders can rally around to drive behaviour change.

  • Sustainable packaging is the most tangible signal: “According to a recent Ipsos study commissioned by Singapore startup Package Pals, 62% of Singaporeans are receptive to receiving secondhand packaging. However, businesses can do more to allay consumer concerns that present a barrier to accepting secondhand packaging, such as the fear of product tampering (57%), hygiene issues (50%) and questions over product authenticity (47%),” write Ipsos’ Tammy Ho and Anvaya Sharma in their article about closing the say-do gap with sustainable packaging.
  • Develop a “sustainability ambition”: Andy Wilson argues the need for organisations to design a sustainability ambition specifically for stakeholder engagement. “(It) is more than an environmental pledge, which can often be technical and generic. The sustainability ambition should distill the comprehensive sustainability report into a more meaningful and compelling statement designed for stakeholder engagement.”