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From Spend Shifters to Strategic Buyers:
How Soon Will Climate Become a Reason to Purchase?

One of the highlights of Sustainable Brands ‘13 London was Chip Walker’s talk about The Shifting Landscape of Consumer Values and Implications for Your Brand’s Future. The power in Walker’s delivery was, in common with all the best talks, that he provided insight into questions that everyone in his audience has. Specifically, he shed new light on how consumers think about brands.

One of the main revelations was about the shift from mindless purchasing pre-2008 to mindful purchasing. Interestingly, he highlighted that his firm's research (which included 65,000 responders globally) revealed that this shift was gathering momentum around 2007 just before the global economic collapse — people were already figuring out that consumption might not be the friend they once thought it to be.

With another year behind us, I wonder if the changes in consumer mindsets are accelerating. I say this because the looming monster of climate change features significantly in everyone’s peripheral sense now much more than ever. Trust featured heavily in Walker’s talk and he noted how the percentage of people that trusted brands pre-2008 was 49 percent — and after, just 25 percent. In that context, where sustainability has become increasingly important, surely now it is more important than ever if not a mere baseline of acceptability.

With the steady and perhaps accelerating evolution in thinking, does it now follow that a new baseline could emerge — that you are doing something about climate change? Kingfisher’s discussion on its Net Positive webpage is notable because it places the words, “the growing pressure on natural resources” right alongside the words, “the impact of global climate change.” This is a rare corporate acknowledgement of the issue of climate change but it is clear that this issue is at the root of their journey beyond sustainability to actually making things better.

And Chief Executive Sir Ian Cheshire makes it equally clear that he considers this good for business: “By taking a restorative approach, putting back more than we take out, we will create positive change for people and the environment, and a stronger and more resilient business, too.”

Back to Walker, his research highlighted that 65 percent of people agreed with the phrase, “I believe my friends and I can change behaviour by supporting companies that do the right thing.” Is it possible, therefore, that what will follow mindful purchasing is strategic purchasing?

A recent study by the Belgian Statistics Office concluded that 71 percent of Belgians point to industry as being the main cause of climate change. Like it or not, as climate change bites down, the finger of blame might be pointed at your company. And the massive shifts in brand attributes that Walker highlighted expose the fact that socially conscious consumption has dwarfed the conspicuous consumption of 2005, in the context — even more disconcertingly — that BAV Consulting's research revealed that only 25 percent of brands are currently trusted. Brand trends and consumer macro trends are changing so seismically we should all now be asking if “consumers” can even really be called “consumers” anymore. It could be possible, in the near future, that if your company sells and produces in a way that helps the climate, then you will earn customers’ business.

“People are voting their values through their consumerism,” Walker said last year. What if those values now or in the near future scream: “What are you actually doing about climate change?” I wonder if and how quickly a new transition from mindful purchasing to strategic purchasing might happen? Of course we don’t have a model that simultaneously maps the potential onslaught of climate-related crises that will challenge us to our core, together with the groundswell of reaction and rising-up that is happening with ever-accelerating force — from geeks and entrepreneurs turning their talents to the challenges, to activists hitting the streets in protest, to 'clicktavists' bombarding the political elite.

While in her much-lauded new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, multi-award-winning journalist Naomi Klein challenges capitalism to its core, thinkers such as Walker are subtler apparently, thinking in more evolutionary terms: “Capitalism is now about better, rather than more.” In effect, one visionary is viewing capitalism as an idea whereas the other sees it as a mindset, but surely if people’s minds are changing then behavioral change follows soon after. And in terms of business and brands, the question becomes: “If the changes discussed here happen within the next two years, how is your brand adapting to its new environment?”

Are we going to see the role of “Head of Net Positive” proliferate across blue chips just has “Head of Sustainability” has followed “Head of CSR”? Kingfisher was credited in this year’s Guardian Sustainable Business Awards for their Net Positive programme, but in the future will the most relevant awards not be called the “Net Positive Awards”?

There isn't a marketing professional who does not cringe at the mention of the word “greenwashing,” but that is already a dated term and, at some point soon, doing something about climate change might just become the new baseline for your customers’ decision to buy your products.

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