Opinion

Can luxury brands help the world of FMCG tackle sustainability?

15 May, 2018 Share socially

Two things sparked my interest in the last twenty-four hours. The first being an exhibition a few of us from FutureBrand visited yesterday curated by Selfridges called The Flipside. Part art exhibition, part performance space, it features provocative installations from some of the world’s most innovative luxury brands. The second was an article published today by Marketing Week which led with the headline ‘Unilever’s sustainable brands now delivering 70% of its growth’. What do these two things have in common?

At The Flipside exhibition, a standout piece was an installation created by luxury perfume house Byredo about the future of bottled water. Based on the theme ‘radical luxury’, Byredo explores the world of sustainability through a dystopian future where fresh water will be amongst the most precious of things. This got me thinking – how far away are we from such a future and is it really that dystopian?

Can luxury brands help the world of FMCG tackle sustainability?

We’re bombarded every day with new facts and figures about waste, sustainability and the strain on our natural resources. Look around your office now and I ask you how many people have bought a KeepCup in the last few months? Yep, me too.

Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business

So why are the figures released by Unilever so powerful? The world of FMCG is often likened to a big tanker that’s really slow to turn. Never has this been truer than in the world of consumer brands and sustainability. It makes sense when you think about it. Most FMCG brands are great at short-term planning, driven by the one, two and three year plans marketers are obliged to create. But what about five year, ten year, fifty year plans? Add to this decades of cost-cutting and making products faster and cheaper, it’s clear to see why making products ‘better’ got a bit left behind.

According to the article I mentioned, Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business. That’s pretty dramatic. And exciting. These same brands are now responsible for more of Unilever’s growth than ever before, delivering 70% of its turnover growth. Impressive. But when Unilever set out it’s stall in 2010 to double the size of the business and halve its carbon footprint, the sentiment was met with more than a little speculation and mockery. I’m sure those same sceptics are now firmly sitting up and taking note.

More than ever before, luxury brands have the power to answer both consumer and environmental demands

Perhaps if other FMCG brand owners are struggling to follow in the footsteps of Unilever, can we look to the world of luxury for pointers? Turn the clock back eight years ago, when Unilever announced its ambitious plans, luxury brands were just coming out of the bling era. I wouldn’t have guessed back then that the world of luxury could be leading the sustainability charge. We heard a lot about this at the How Design Live conference in Boston last week too. More than ever before, luxury brands have the power to answer both consumer and environmental demands by challenging norms, innovating via science and technology and designing alternatives that will one day become the norm. Take French cosmetics brand La Bouche Rouge who doesn’t use any microplastic anywhere in their formula or packaging. They make one lipstick case—and they only want you to buy it once. You can then constantly refill with any of the brand's lipstick shades, which all come in recyclable paper tubes minimally labelled with the shade name. Beauty brand Kjaer Weis ups the lux factor even more - being at the forefront of luxurious but sustainable packaging.

Can luxury brands help the world of FMCG tackle sustainability?

The definitions of luxury and sustainability are closely evolving. In the future, they could work hand in hand - in ways that challenge the traditional ways of FMCG brand management and product innovation.  So for other big brand owners wanting to ‘do a Unilever’, perhaps there are lessons to be learnt not only from the immediate peer group, but also from smaller, luxury players like Byredo too.


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Jovan Buac - jbuac@futurebrand.com