Suston talks to Erik Elvingsson Hedén from the Sustainable Brand Index, Europe’s largest consumer study on sustainability, to find out what outdoor brands need to know about communicating sustainability to today’s consumer.

How are brands perceived in terms of sustainability by consumers? This is the key question the team behind Sustainable Brand Index has been asking since Erik Elvingsson Hedén founded the company in 2011 – first in Sweden, and now also including Norway, Finland, Denmark, the Baltic states, and the Netherlands. The annually update index is based on interviews with over 70 000 consumers, asking them which brands are the most trusted in categories like “banks,” “food,” and “clothes & fashion” (where the outdoor brands are found). Relevant stakeholders also answer questions about what role sustainability plays when it comes to buying decisions in their daily life, and more.

Based on the interviews, the selected brands are then ranked overall, per market, and within their category. The results are presented at a series of events, together with analyses from the sister company SB Insights. Suston got a hold of Erik Elvingsson Hedén just after the results from last year were published.

 

For the first time since the start in 2013, the interest in sustainability appears to not be increasing – only moving horizontally. What can be the reasons behind this?

First, we must remember that the level of interest is generally very high among consumers. More than two-thirds state that sustainability considerations are affecting their purchasing decisions to at least a certain extent. And a majority is discussing sustainability issues regularly, ranging from 68% in Sweden and the Netherlands to 58% in Norway.

This said, the pandemic moved the focus in society in other directions. Another factor is that the alarm reports about climate and environment has started to wear down the average consumer. There is heightened media coverage about sustainability – but people are getting used to it.

 

Brands are also communicating more and louder around these topics. Is there a fatigue towards this as well among consumers?

Both yes and no. As I said, most people are very interested. But they are tired of generic, boring and even misleading communication.

Until recently, the major challenge for brands was daring to talk because they were scared to fail. Thankfully, this stage has passed – but perhaps too much and too fast. Most sustainability communication is unfortunately still relatively poor. We see that more consumers are skeptical about the brands’ claims, compared to previous years. This is one general message from our insights team: we must move from quantity to quality.

 

There are only a few outdoor companies on the top-20-lists for these markets, like Fjällräven (16th), Bergans of Norway (17th), and the retailers Naturkompaniet and Partioaitta (18th in Sweden and 17th in Finland). Some other outdoor brands are found further down, but these are seldom seen to perform better than previous years. What can be the reason for this?

I think one significant factor is that communication about the importance of nature has become mainstream.

If we look back a few years, the outdoor brands were fairly alone communicating about forests, mountains, wilderness etc. Today, brands from many sectors use similar imagery and messages – even the fuel companies are showing beautiful forests in their sustainability communication.

Also, the textile industry as a whole is regarded as problematic by many consumers. The fashion brands are placed even further down in the rankings, and many people answer that over-consumption and waste are their major concerns.

 

What then should outdoor brand do if they want to reach and engage customers more with its sustainability communication?

That would be the same as in other industries: avoid generic messages, visions and “commitments.” Instead, talk about what you actually are doing. Showcase positive results and be transparent about your challenges. And remember, this kind of clearer communication is not only “nice to have” – the legislation in EU is getting stricter about how you need to back up your sustainability claims.

The brands that get the highest ranking often have their sustainability strategies incorporated into their way of doing business – and the same goes for when they communicate about it. It is not “here is our regular marketing and here is our sustainability communication” – it is one single entity. And last but not least: sustainability communication is unfortunately often just boring… You can engage more if you dare to be creative and emotional!

 

Select slides from the 2022 Sustainable Brand Index Report:

PERCENTAGE OF RESPONDENTS WHO DISCUSS SUSTAINABILITY WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS: This graph clearly shows the increased interest leading up to the Paris Agreement, a decline, and then a subsequent rise that was then cut off by the pandemic.

The Index groups respondents into four categories: Ego, Moderate, Smart and Dedicated. Unlike the “Dedicated,” who prioritize sustainability above all else, “Smart” respondents are those more actively interested in sustainability, but whom also prioritize quality and service.

PERCENTAGE OF CONSUMERS WHO TRUST/MISTRUST SUSTAINABILITY COMMUNICATION: Not very trustworthy by the looks of this chart, which shows that the trend of trust in sustainability communication is in decline in most markets.

 

Photo/Graphics: Sustainable Brand Index

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com
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