Embracing sustainability starts with acknowledging it’s a challenge

True sustainability is a significant challenge, and brands that don’t recognise the hill they have to climb will very quickly fall out of favour, says Carla Buzasi, President & CEO, WGSN, in this exclusive interview.

After 15 years as an award-winning editor and journalist, Carla Buzasi, President & CEO, WGSN, moved to the world of trend forecasting in 2014 and leads our global business.

Before WGSN, Carla was the founding editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post UK, and an editorial director for the global brand. She has also held roles at Marie Claire, Glamour and Vogue.com, as well as contributing to The Guardian, and sitting on the advisory board for The Telegraph Media Group.

Carla speaks at events including SXSW, Cannes Lions, TedX and Web Summit, delivering advice to CEOs on how they can future-proof their businesses and their brands.

In this interview with MartechAsia, Carla shares her insights on sustainability and how brands in APAC can innovate towards a better future, and win consumers along the way.

Carla Buzasi, President & CEO, WGSN

How are brands approaching sustainability as a principle in the APAC region? Is their attitude qualitatively different from that of their counterparts in Europe and North America?

Consumers in Asian countries are more exposed to environmental issues than their Western counterparts. Due to their geographical location in the world, they feel the impact of the climate crisis more viscerally and more frequently, from wildfires to floods, heatwaves and droughts. As a result, APAC consumers prioritise sustainable development over and above American and European groups, although the global world is quickly aligning on this key value. According to the European Investment Bank’s Climate Survey last year, 73% of China’s population support a post-pandemic green recovery, compared to 49% of American consumers and 57% European.

Despite more physical exposure to the effects of climate change, Asian countries, their governments and brands have been slower to adopt sustainable practices in comparison to the West, but this is changing quickly. Government legislation has markedly uptick over the last 18 months in light of the pandemic, with China leading the charge. From net-carbon pledges to biodiversity governance and single-use plastic bans, brands and consumers in this region are now being led by policy.

It must be noted, however, that consumer and country willingness to embrace sustainable brands in APAC directly correlates with each nation’s level of economic development. While many consumers might be aware of and concerned about the climate crisis, not all can adapt their lifestyles to mitigate the risks, and so the way in which brands approach sustainability in the region varies dramatically.

From an attitude perspective, APAC leans away from fear-mongering – something Western brands are more inclined to do – and instead focuses on the benefits of sustainable solutions to both the planet and its people. For this region, sustainability might have been only a ‘nice to have’ for some time, but it’s now most definitely a ‘must have’.

To engage with consumers, brands in countries such as Japan and China use interactive and tech-based initiatives. Immersive experiences and online games that allow consumers to better understand the impact of actions on the environment are key, while automated solutions such as recycling robots and green deliveries are gaining traction. The APAC market is incredibly accustomed to convenience and so brands are finding novel ways to integrate sustainable practices and products into existing retail streams.

How can brands embrace sustainability in a better way and win consumer trust too?

Embracing sustainability starts with acknowledging it’s a challenge, and in some cases acknowledging it even exists. True sustainability is a significant challenge, and brands that don’t recognise the hill they have to climb will very quickly fall out of favour. Transparency, traceability and accountability are the pillars of sustainability, without which consumers will start to question credibility.

Brands will only win consumer trust by being honest about what they’re doing. A brand must highlight its challenges, explain how they are working to change, and continuously update their customers on the progress they are making – whether forward or backwards. Only then will a consumer really trust what a brand says, because they’ll have the facts to back it up.

Do you think there are consumer personas based around sustainability and ESG initiatives? If there are, how should brands cater to them?

The conscious consumer is growing in force, but as outlined in our Sustainable Strategies 2023 report and our Create Better White Paper, there are three different cohorts under this umbrella, all of whom look to brands for different things.

First up, the value-driven consumer, who centres their sustainability expectations around affordability and accessibility. If something isn’t convenient, they won’t engage with it, and brands need to democratise access to sustainable education and lifestyles to appeal to this cohort. Local solutions are key, with this consumer looking to brands to impact them on a micro-level, infiltrating their communities and making sustainable choices feel more tangible and more personal. Demonstrating the direct impact of these choices on local communities is also imperative, as consumers want to know that their actions are making a difference.

Next up is the purpose-driven consumer, who’s channeling their fears about the climate crisis into action. Brands must empower them to do this. Community and collaboration are the focus here – the consumer wants to participate in changing the world, rather than watching from the sidelines. Think brand-led beach clean-up events, personal carbon footprint tracking apps and SWAP communities. Circularity is a key purchasing driver, and brands can better engage them in this principle by offering hands-on workshops for repair and reuse.

Finally, we have the disengaged consumer, those that are driven by a distrust in institutions and are therefore looking to business to step in and lead environmental transformation. This consumer doesn’t want the responsibility of change on their shoulders, instead asking brands to do what governments are not. Cross-industry collaborations to solve global problems will rank high on this consumer’s list of expectations, as well as government partnerships that see the brand campaigning for change.

Please share with us some examples of brands that are blazing the trail in terms of sustainability.

So many brands are innovating in this space. One of my favourite initiatives from recent months is the WaterBear free streaming service, in partnership with brands such as beauty company Natura&Co and tech leader Nikon. Waterbear offers a wealth of free information to the everyday consumers. Based on the concept of streaming services such as Netflix, which have become part of our every day during the pandemic, the site offers unrestricted access to global documentaries on the nuances of climate change and how to fight it. Brand partners are using the platform to showcase films about their own practices and initiatives too – a more gentle and more trustful way to engage with the consumer.

From Asia, I’m keeping an eye on the resale market, which is not only booming but manifesting in really interesting ways. Take Korean brand Danggeun Market, for example, which uses GPS to locate items and sellers within close proximity of the user. In Japan, Mercari is taking the online consumer reselling experience offline with its Mercari Station stores. These standalone and department store concessions allow customers to take pictures of their resell items in pro quality, before wrapping them in the brand’s bespoke packaging and submitting them for shipping. Designed to help less tech-savvy consumers crack into the reselling process, it’s a truly engaging and consumer-focused initiative that serves to democratise this booming market.

Any advice for Asian CMOs to bring sustainability more effectively into their brand messaging?

If something isn’t sustainable, don’t say it is. It can be tempting to tag the word onto product descriptions and drop it into campaigns, but unless you can back it up with the why and how, don’t say it. The word sustainable is also becoming less and less trusted by consumers -it’s used so often now without any real substance – so when you’re messaging your brand as sustainable, use more specific terminology. Explain exactly how it is better for the planet and people. Use and explain more technical terminology. Unearth the processes and supply chain behind your products. Get into the nitty gritty and prove your claims with third party certifications where possible. Don’t say sustainable if you don’t mean it.