Bethan Ryder, Executive Editorial Director at WGSN, looks at the deep and growing mistrust in institutions and governments to implement the right policies to save the planet, which presents both risk and opportunity.

Last year’s COP26 conference may have put sustainability back on the world stage, but for many, it fell short of the mark. Not least for the refreshingly frank Greta Thunberg, who declared it firstly a “PR exercise”, and secondly, “a failure”. For COP26 detractors, the overarching consensus that governments cannot be trusted to implement the right policies to save the planet echoes a wider Gen Z and Millennial scepticism of authority, which we’ve been tracking at WGSN. There is a deep and growing mistrust in institutions and governments to do the right thing, whether that be prioritising inclusivity or tackling the climate crisis. This is leaving a chasm that people are addressing not only through community action, but also increasingly in the brands and the businesses they choose to engage and invest in.

This presents both risk and opportunity across all the industries that WGSN serves: Fashion, Beauty, Interiors, Food & Drink and Consumer Tech. The climate emergency is the crisis of our age, and it’s our ambition to be the go-to thought leader for advising brands in how to design products in more responsible ways that benefit people and planet. Our white paper ‘Create Better – innovating towards a sustainable future’ is a curated glimpse into the in-depth insight and expertise we offer clients on this topic, and includes WGSN proprietary consumer data, strategies and solutions, progressive case studies, plus third-party certifications and organisations to help brands build towards this better future.

So what are the key themes?

Consumers want change 

A 2020 World Economic Forum survey of 21,000 people from 28 countries found that 86% want to see more sustainable and equitable products in the post-pandemic market. WGSN analysis shows that sustainability continues to be a key consumer priority, with conversations about the topic remaining relevant on social media across industries.

Consumers are expecting change from companies, and many are willing to actively participate in building back a better world alongside the brands they choose. According to a 2020 report by IBM Institute for Business Value, six out of 10 consumers are ready to alter their purchasing behaviour to minimise their environmental footprint. Data suggests this attitude intensified during the pandemic.

We document three emerging mindsets changing the conversation on sustainability: the value-driven consumer, the purpose-driven consumer, and the disengaged consumer. These are the consumer profiles that brands need to engage with to thrive in tomorrow’s world, and our white paper offers the strategies to do so, from local and decentralised economies for the value-driven, to businesses establishing themselves as thought leaders, guiding a disengaged cohort towards a more resilient and responsible future.  

We structured the white paper by industry, however, these were the main uniting themes relevant to all:

Responsible sourcing: Regenerative systems 

This is one of two distinct emerging approaches to sourcing raw materials. Natural resources are finite, therefore regenerative agriculture – harnessing processes that restore, renew or revitalise their own systems of energy and materials – is set to be a gamechanger, resulting in more responsible sourcing. Regenerative farming practices actively improve environmental conditions such as soil quality and biodiversity, reinvigorating soil so that it can actually sequester carbon. Our white paper details solutions for the fashion industry in particular, since it relies so heavily on natural fibres to create garments.

Responsible sourcing: Biotechnology solutions

The other approach relies on advances in biotechnology and ways to replace resource-heavy processes by creating ingredients that are nature-identical, without being taken directly from nature itself. Although this has cross-industry implications, we focus on Beauty and Food & Drink. We discuss the rise in blue and white biotechnology for beauty; the former comprises marine resources such as algae, marine bacteria, halophytes, and the latter living microorganisms and enzymes which are used to synthesise products that are easily degradable and require less energy to make. White biotech is particularly effective for fragrance creation, with alternatives to patchouli, sandalwood and vetiver coming to the fore. 

In the food industry, cellular agriculture, AKA cell ag, specifically lab-grown meat, poultry and seafood, is set to be a major disruptor. This field of innovation is exploding thanks to large investments from food industry visionaries. It’s worth noting that Singapore is the first government to approve cell-based meat, and Israel is also a hub of innovation here.

Tackling carbon emissions

Carbon awareness is on the rise. Around two-thirds of global consumers say they would feel more positive about companies that can demonstrate efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their products, according to the Carbon Trust. We spotlight this in the Food & Drink and Consumer Tech sectors. Carbon positivity is building momentum in food and drink, with smaller disruptor brands leading the way – partly due to increased agility, but also because many are built from the ground up to be climate-positive. We call out pioneering case studies and third-party organisations to assist brands here. In tech, an awareness of the carbon cost of using the internet and other digital technologies is growing. We highlight the importance of carbon tracking and clear labelling to win consumer confidence.

The wonders of waste

Lockdown has heightened consumer recognition of the waste issue, with demands for simpler, more convenient recycling coming to the fore. Designers and brands are devising solutions to tackle this. If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest global emitter of greenhouse gases behind the US and China. Roughly one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption is never eaten. Likewise, e-waste (electronic waste) is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, with around 50m tonnes produced each year. We explore the innovations, including suggestions for material reinvention in tech manufacturing and the use of alternatives such as recycled e-waste materials and renewable plastics and textiles, circular composites, and low-impact metals.

In the food industry, equally inventive ideas are surfacing, such as utilising byproducts or imperfect and surplus ingredients to create new products, often for other industries, such as beauty.

Extending lifespans

Brands need to consider the lifespan of their products and build in full circularity. This needs to start at the design and manufacturing stage. Products should be designed for disassembly, easy recycling or to allow right-to-repair. Meanwhile, at the purchasing and post-purchasing stage circular retail systems and rental schemes provide lower-impact alternatives. We address these issues in tech, as governments explore the idea of lifespan labels for white goods, and Right to Repair legislation gathers pace. Consumers expect more responsibility from brands, as planned obsolescence loses traction and repair climbs up the list of consumer priorities.

In interiors, it’s not just sustainability concerns pushing consumers to embrace secondhand and circular products; the shift dovetails with a recessionary mindset and the growing number of consumers who are embracing frugality. Options such as take-back, recommerce and buy-back programmes are retail strategies to incentivise more sustainable habits among customers. Another solution for homewares brands is renewal and refurbishment, as global interest in mending and crafting pushes businesses to rethink how they can give their own products a longer life through repair.

WARC readers can download the full WGSN report here.