OPINION2 December 2020

Spending beyond our means

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Lian Nuttall asks what impact the insights industry can have in building more sustainable practices.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I got into some credit card trouble a few years back. I was happily spending away, only paying back the minimum charge each month, and the bank just kept giving me more and more free money.

Until one day it stopped, and then I needed money to fix the boiler, and my car, and pay for prescriptions and pet bills… I had no more ‘free credit’ and no emergency savings. No plan B.

“Why are you sharing this highly personal story with me?” you might ask. Well, Paddy Loughman helped me understand that my story is exactly what we’ve all been doing… to the planet.

We’ve been spending our natural resources and fossil fuels like they have an ever-increasing limit and acting like charging people 20p for a plastic bag and re-planting a few trees will keep everything going just fine – but just like credit, if you keep spending beyond your means, eventually it catches up with you. And there is no planet B.

Our “bank”, the earth, doesn’t have any more credit to give – and in fact we’re so badly in debt with it that we’re causing its collapse – from the North Atlantic garbage patch and global warming, to species extinction and Covid-19. And we need to act now to balance the books before it’s too late.

Every little step you take personally can help – re-use plastic bags, invest your money via sustainable savings accounts, buy less fast fashion, try to use your car less… but as an industry, you might be questioning what we can do and how far we can go.

The quandary is how do we, as research and insights specialists, make marked change on sustainability, protecting and restoring our planet, whilst also working with our clients who might be companies trying to sell more toothbrushes, encouraging people to buy and drive cars, eat food served in single-use plastic, purchase fast fashion, and so on.

Well, it’s not an unsolvable puzzle, and in fact there are many companies already making marked change on sustainable practices and innovation, from Sky to Maple Leaf Foods.

Even more positively, there are ever more opportunities for those agency side to feel empowered too – there is increasingly carbon data available for the clients you work with which can help you to measure direct impact of sales on the planet, and some agencies are trialling the use of genuine progress indicator (GPI) as measure of success for business (which I’m hoping to see become as important, or more important than, NPS!).

Some advertising agencies are starting to understand, calculate and publish their impacts on the planet too, which is a fantastic shift.

The MRS has just created a sustainability pledge – this will help research and insights businesses achieve carbon neutrality ahead of the EU objective of 2050.

So, what do I recommend to other keen-and-green researchers out there?

  • Make sure the powers-that-be in your organisation are aware of the MRS pledge and encourage them to engage with it
  • Make and keep sustainability a frequent topic of conversation within your friends, colleagues, teams and organisations, as well as with clients
  • Try your best to make it day-to-day and not regarded as a trend (we want to reach the point where not talking about it in briefs and debriefs is weird… just like how we would never ignore profitability or brand perception)
  • Find and share relevant content – LinkedIn, Twitter, TikTok… whatever floats your boat – get the message out to your circle of influence to help others see, understand, and prioritise sustainability.

Together, we can help everyone stay out of debt with planet earth and work to get the most out of our available resources in a sustainable way.

Lian Nuttall is senior research manager at InSites Consulting

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