How brands should navigate 2023’s sustainability trends


What does “sustainability” really mean? It’s a vast and confusing topic. But our knowledge and expectations are growing and brands need to keep up. So how can brands best position themselves to cut through with consumers? 

Luckily The Big Picture has given this a lot of thought! For Earth Month, we’ve tapped into our category expertise and investigated the top sustainability trends and how brands can navigate them. 

1. AI has entered the chat 

Could this be the end to greenwashing? 

AI has the potential to influence how we talk about sustainability. To better understand its role, we asked ChatGPT and learned:  

  • ChatGPT is confident in AI’s ability to provide the tools required to provide full transparency. At a click of a button.  
  • QR codes on packaging will hold all the information on a brand’s sustainability commitments, standards, and compliance.  
  • The hook isn’t just that consumers will have this information. AI predicts through an algorithm it can establish the parameters for success through analysing profit data, LCA’s, carbon audits etc., and condense into a single unified system to provide consumers a brand’s sustainability status via a simple rating or score  

What does this mean? It could mean no more hiding. Perhaps the end of greenwashing and its new mate, green hushing. Consumers will be placed in the driver’s seat, with the ability to make informed purchases that align with their morals and preferences. 

This may not be a bad thing, as added external authority could build trust with consumers. A recent study by McKinsey shared that 88% of Gen Z don’t believe brands about their sustainability efforts. Consider how using AI could help you own the narrative on your sustainability story, leveraging this when building credibility with consumers. 

2. Plastic isn’t going anywhere

But how can brands innovate to get ahead of the curve? 

We’re all painfully aware of the global plastic crisis. But how did plastic pollution get so extreme? Plastic has become a near-irreplaceable material for consumer goods. Due to efficacy concerns from mainstream consumers, plastic-free living has struggled to reach beyond eco-warriors. 

The landscape is shifting and after years of attempts at plastic alternatives (usually made with materials like corn starch) manufacturers may have breached the utility gap. Brands like Notpla have successfully mass-produced algae-based plastic that effectively replaces film-type plastic. Remarkably, the difference is undetectable, and it biodegrades instantly. JustEat, Unilever and Lucozade are already embracing Notpla 

Consumers are savvy. If your brand is serious about sustainability, investigate alternative plastics to get ahead of the curve, or even drive the conversation.  

3. It’s all about offsetting

What does it mean? How do we communicate it? 

No longer a buzzword, the phrase “Net Zero” has graduated beyond niche environmental circles to become common phrase with consumers. How can global brands with worldwide distribution, like BrewDog, be carbon negative? Carbon offsetting. 

It’s defined as countering usage with carbon reductions elsewhere to reduce net emissions. Tree planting is the most publicised offset. But it can come from investments in energy efficiency or renewable energy, or other types of “carbon sink” (like healthy oceans or peatland). Dubbing a brand “Net Zero” resonates among consumers. The idea of a brand not negatively impacting the environment with carbon is easy to understand. Instead of leaving consumers to calculate carbon reductions, labelling “Net Zero” cuts through more effectively.  

For success, link offsetting to purpose. Go beyond the science and add a story. Think about company values. Offset with a purpose that aligns with your brand. Don’t offset, just to offset. 

4. Rising government action

Don’t waste the opportunity that regulations present to your brand 

While EPR, DRS, and ESG sound like arbitrary acronyms, they’re needed to protect the planet. These certifications also present challenges for businesses. And regulatory compliance is confusing and complex for consumers who want to engage, but feel ill informed.  

Open the conversation. You’ve made it through compliance, but now how do you communicate this to consumers? Break it down into something simple and tangible. Or even add your own twist.  

For starters, if all brands must use minimum 30% recycled plastic, or participate in the upcoming Deposit Return Scheme, how do you stand out and get consumers on board? Communicate with friendly language, make it relatable, explain why you’re doing this, and if you can, make it fun! 

By building in story with meaning, the adidas x Parley Ocean Plastic Recyclable Trainers collaboration does more than just say it’s recycled plastic. 

5. The rise in scrutiny & ethics 

Honesty us the best policy, and it’s not all about the destination

Climate concerns have long been mainstream. Consumers are on their own journeys toward sustainability and the vast majority are making an effort. So don’t be afraid to engage with them on the topic. 

Honesty is the best policy; and it’s not all about your trajectory. If your brand is behind the curve on sustainability – that’s fine. It’s about drawing a clear path and taking consumers along with you. Communicate your intentions, ambitions and failures. You’ll find consumers engage with this transparency. 

Most importantly, pick your mission and own it. It’s better to have one clear focus that’s aligned to purpose, than spread your brand too thin trying to achieve everyone’s ideal. As a bonus, consider ways consumers can feel like part of the conversation and efforts made.  Look to Ganni, a clothing brand, that openly shares its sustainability goals and reflects honestly on progress. 

In summary, consumers are becoming increasingly sustainability savvy. As the planet needs us more, brands should tap their consumers to drive efforts, keeping us all honest.  

If you’d like to discuss further, get in touch!