20 years of sustainable business – Sarah Bolger, Colmar Brunton

Sarah Bolger, Head of Colmar Brunton, talks about what has changed in consumer attitudes to sustainability over the 10 years that Colmar Brunton has been conducting the Better Futures survey, and what businesses can learn from these changes.

What changes have you seen in sustainability in the last 20 years?

Sustainability used to have like a halo of progressiveness around it. And it used to be the leading edge of differentiation. Whereas now it is table stakes and if you are not doing something sustainable, actually you are conspicuous by its absence.

There’s a shift from some niche disruptors and challenger brands that have been born out of sustainability, to actually sustainability becoming much more mainstream with large business, big corporates. And we now have an audience of sustainability managers, in our audience for the Better Futures event. And you can also see it in the reporting that comes through where they’re actually very proud to articulate what their sustainability performance has been.

How did Colmar Brunton start the Better Futures survey?

Around about the time of the GFC, we were noticing amongst a variety of different research forums and consumer groups and surveys that there was another aspect to consumer behaviour that wasn’t necessarily being accounted for.

And that conscious consumerism was like a thread that we had observed across a number of different categories. And I guess it was seen particularly from a younger audience and we felt that it was important to explore this and we felt that this was maybe the emergence of a trend. So we thought, well, great, let’s try and do a syndicated study, and get the business on board.

Of course, everybody’s finances were somewhat strapped at the time. We decided that we would invest ourselves in doing this piece of work, to help produce some evidence that, you know, against this hypothesis that maybe this was an emerging trend. It took a long time for that trend to emerge. But it feels now as though the sleeping giant has been awoken.

What are some of the trends you have seen in the 10 years of the survey?

Not a lot happened for the first six or seven. You know, we saw gradual increases, very minor increases in behaviour. It’s the last two years that we’ve seen some dramatic increase in people’s attitudes towards wanting to be sustainable and commitment to wanting to do the right thing. They’re not consistent. They’re not always going to be doing everything sustainably in every aspect of their lives, but they’re trying to do their bit.

What are the lessons for business out of the Better Futures survey?

Consumers are going to be looking for businesses that are providing solutions for them. And this is not something that you can ignore. Consumers want businesses to be part of the solution, not the problem. They are prepared to change their behaviours if it’s made easy for them. They will be looking to brands that they can trust and that you can’t just rely on, superficial, I guess greenwashing. They’ve got the information they can go searching for it to actually test whether what you’re saying is true. So it’s important that you are doing the right thing authentically. I think the other learning is, is that you don’t have to be perfect. Like we don’t have to have the entire solution there, because people are interested in going on that journey with you.

What do you want to do with the Better Futures survey in future?

We’ll deep dive into areas that we think people want answers to. I think climate action is certainly on the agenda this year. I think we will look particularly at behaviour change elements. How can we help people with that behaviour? And that’s what we tried to do with our last report. I know last year we put a focus on plastic. We saw this as an emerging territory of interest and, it was no surprise to us really that it came up top as one of the most, important or, or most concerning elements. You understand where the tensions are and where the barriers are and actually there are ways and means to overcome those barriers.

Has the focus on plastics changed business behaviour?

I’ve certainly noticed that there are more and more businesses and you know, local cafes and food service outlets that have jumped on board with that information. I’d be delighted to think that people are using this report as a source of encouragement, and evidence to actually take action.

How did working with SBC help with the Better Futures report?

It’s great to see or to have a forum whereby there’s a sort of a common mindset. We both have a desire to raise awareness and provide evidence-based information for businesses to take action. And I think, partnering with SBC has certainly helped us take this information and this evidence to big business. We’re giving sustainability a voice and a strong voice as well.

How has SBC membership helped Colmar Brunton overall?

It’s given us the real imperative again, to review our own practices within the business. We’ve always tried to be sustainable. We’ve recently gone through the CEMARS certification. It’s just kept us on point and it’s encouraged us to try and be even bolder with what we want to do with our initiatives. That has been a great joint project. And I think, and I hope again, that it is material that will be useful to business going forward and helping understand how they can represent sustainability and what are the, what are the feelings and the emotions behind the good that it can produce.

What would you like to see in the next 20 years?

Businesses really becoming part of the solution and not contributing to the problem. It’s about understanding that there is the heightened sense of urgency and that now is the time to act. If people aren’t acting then now the time to reconsider that because we see it even more so in everyday conversations with consumers that they want to know how to do the right thing. And they really are quite concerned. I think they’ve ever woken to the idea that they need to do things differently and we need to help them.

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