Do our customers really care about the climate?

In a four-part series, James Smith investigates whether cycling consumers are considering the environmental and ethical impacts of their purchases

I recently completed an MSc in Strategic Business Management. To be fair, it did not mention what to do in a global pandemic! However, my dissertation did focus on the changing customer focus on the climate. It has led to a number of conversations across social media – is it time we, as an industry, really began to focus on our climate credentials? This series of articles will focus on the cycling industry and our approach to our clients and their growing concern with our impact on the environment.

The environment and ethical responsibilities of organisations and the general concerns surrounding climate change are in the media every day. Brands across the world are considering their positions, reducing their packaging and ensuring that consumers are aware of their green credentials. 

The brands that are doing this understand that there is a market gain to be had by improving their environmental and/or ethical credentials. However, the current research is based around the environmental and/or ethical concerns of individuals, rather than the concerns of the consumer as they consider their purchase.

The UK cycling consumer is widely thought of as having generic green credentials by their choice of transport. Cycling is, of course, a green way to travel, and with fewer emissions than many other forms of transportation, it is also better for the health of the nation. 

A 2010 report, Challenges in Researching Consumer Ethics, said: “to assume that an objective and universal ethics exists is misguided. “Consumer decision-making processes and ethical choices are complex, and consumers are ambivalent and possess multiple value systems” (Hiller, 2010). However, in the ten years since this report was written, ethics and environmental consumerism has reached a much higher public profile, not least with the BBC documentary Blue Planet. This groundbreaking BBC documentary was the number one most-watched programme on the BBC in 2017. The programme itself had many upsetting scenes, highlighting the issues around single-use plastics which created a groundswell of opinion against plastic waste (Loughley, 2018).

For the last 30 years, continuous environmental legislation has made manufacturers, distributors and retailers change their production, delivery and retail cycle. However, it was not until 1987 that the environment received its own chapter in any European single market treaty. Towards the end of the 1980s, environmentalism became more popular with the growth of environmental organisations and political parties within the European Union. In 1997, the Amsterdam treaty began the process of environmental policy integration called the Cardiff Process (Hey, 2013).

Today, the European Union has over 130 separate environmental targets and objectives to be met between 2010 and 2050. These range from air quality improvement, proper waste management and reductions in plastic (European Environment Agency, 2019).

Brands positioning themselves in the green market include:

Zara Clothing Brand
A report in the Guardian in July 2019 reported that fashion chain Zara would produce all its clothing from 100% recycled sources by 2025. This includes the target of 80% of all energy consumed will come from renewable sources (Conlon, 2019).

Bio Beans
The Bio-Bean energy company recycles waste coffee grounds into carbon-neutral logs. This repurposing of the coffee bean generates 80% fewer emissions with zero waste to landfill (Jones, 2019).

Lush Cosmetics
Lush Cosmetics uses only mineral oil, and it is committed to supporting the environment and supporting the environmental groups. For example, Lush is one of a few brands that offers its products in either 100% compostable packaging or even naked products if the customer makes that choice (Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics UK, 2019).  A number of cycling brands have begun to at least recognise their impact on the environment; Endura and Primal both have sustainability policies on their websites, whilst GRN clothing uses recycled materials in its products. 

Physical or online – which is better at messaging their green credentials?
The movement from physical retailers to online stores has been dramatic. A report in the Telegraph found that over half of purchases will move online over the next decade (Wallace, 2019). This dramatic change then means that this theatre of consumerism will become increasingly under the spotlight by consumers for their ethical and or environmental positions. Ethical values include online policies on privacy, sustainability, workers’ rights and manufacturing. 

Environmental policies for online retailers can include everything from materials, outputs and waste. Online retailers are required by UK, EU and international law to exhibit this information on their websites, allowing a much easier method of audit for the consumer. Concerns around online security have led some consumers to question the ethical values of online retailers before making purchases, and this has led to an increase in trust in reviews, social feedback and brand trust.

Current volatility within the physical retail sphere requires that stores operate in a multi-channel environment; this still requires physical floor space. These physical store spaces require maintenance, rent and other ongoing costs that are much higher in general than the online sphere. However, there is still space for the physical store in the multi-channel environment. This space still requires a relationship between the consumer and the retailer.

A 2012 report found that: “Physical stores were preferred by older consumers, decreasing in popularity as consumers decreased in age. However, all consumers visited them for social reasons. Finally, the study found that catalogues are seen as outdated, inconvenient and not environmentally friendly, and as a result have been replaced by online as a transactional channel” (Boardman and McCormick, 2018).

Physical stores have less opportunity to prove their green or ethical credentials and rely on their online space policies to do so.

James Smith is the founder of a business development, marketing, social media and PR business focusing on smaller businesses with micro-budgets. His full dissertation can be seen and downloaded at jamessmithgroup.com/published-work. Should you wish to use the information, please ensure credit is given.

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