Consumers around the world are more discerning with their product choices than ever and with sustainability a minimum requirement, customers are more regularly interrogating the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) promises behind their purchases.
It is not enough anymore for brands to merely flaunt sustainability claims; individuals have now become adept at identifying greenwashing, the practice of brands lying about or greatly exaggerating their positive environmental practices. Authenticity, backed by tangible results, is what keeps consumer behavior aligned with sustainability.
Kate Hardcastle MBE, nicknamed ‘The Customer Whisperer’, is a leading voice on consumer behavior, having won 26 national and international commerce awards, and appeared on numerous TV shows and media outlets to offer her commentary. She splits her time between the UK and the UAE and believes that customers are more savvy than they’ve ever been.
“As consumers, we are all aware of the buzzwords when buying or being sold to: ‘environmentally sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘fairtrade’ are in our faces in any supermarket aisle, shop, advertisement or website, and have been for years,” Hardcastle tells Livehealthy.
“Consumers can sniff a ‘greenwash’ a mile away, which makes authenticity a key driver. If consumers believe in your products, and can buy into your ESG claims, which go beyond the environmentally friendly and into workforce and supply chain treatment and strategy – then they will continue to support, purchase and advocate.
“This is why we are seeing more support for independent brands from consumers and attempts to ‘shop local’ and ‘homegrown’ as often as possible, because while there is a very strong appetite for sustainable and conscious consumerism, it is the authenticity in claims and results that drive genuine loyalty.”
The emergence of many homegrown brands that place genuine emphasis on sustainable practices has been a welcome development for climate compassionate consumers in the UAE, and the hosting of COP28 in 2023 may give residents an even greater impetus to make better choices.
“There is no doubt that the region has very unique challenges when it comes to climate change, but the fact that COP28 is being held in the UAE gives a global opportunity to show exactly how the Middle East is planning to tackle their commitments and promises,” Hardcastle says. “I am interested in grassroots action, and purely by having the conversational noise around COP28 we are opening up to more visibility around how the consumer can play their part in consumption and energy use.
“So much of the UAE’s adoption of a sustainable lifestyle is based on mindset. Education is always key and if COP28 can bring any of these issues to the mind of the general UAE public, in ways we haven’t managed to do before, then all the better.”
The association of sustainability with greater expense is a barrier that many customers bemoan but Hardcastle feels there is an opportunity for a collective behavior change to drive prices down.
“We just need the focus on the environment to be as important as the price,” she says. “Education will empower consumers to put more pressure on brands and businesses and consumer conscience will eventually be the tipping point for sustainable products and shopping; we must all apply that pressure and do what we can.”
A shift has already been happening in the Gulf in recent years and there is a clear upward trajectory when it comes to the popularity of sustainable goods and brands – something that Hardcastle expects to continue.
“The key is to be totally conscious about what you are buying. Convenience historically rules in the GCC, but by re-assessing what we buy and where from, you will be surprised at the large amount you can save.
“If we start to re-evaluate our shopping habits, even on a micro level, we will notice wastage, over-use of packaging, single use plastic and other red flags. A big issue in the region is over-consumption but luckily we are seeing a growing recognition of the pre-loved sector – re-use, repurposing and recycling.
“When you shop for independent brands, you are not just supporting yourself, your money is going into a circular economy that supports another set-up directly too, and not just a global entity where we struggle to see the greater good in real terms. Ask questions about what you are buying, and those you are buying from. Educate yourself on the true cost of a product — where has it come from, what is the carbon footprint?”
Hardcastle picks out Kibsons and Myko Kids as two of UAE’s leading retail companies in terms of environmental impact, though she recognizes that the number of sustainable companies is growing all the time.
“Kibsons leads the way with how they work, how they label their imported produce, which makes it so easy for the customer to see the supply chain details and of course the famous blue box, and its recycling scheme, and the encouragement for re-using them,” she explains. “The way that they use and recycle water at their farms and
warehouses is admirable too in a challenging climate.
“For the independent and smaller brands, we are seeing sustainable fashion as a key production trend with Myko Kids in the baby and children’s space as a newcomer. A booming beauty and wellness industry is showing consideration too with products and services, Boho Salon is a great example of how services can be sustainable and eco-friendly too.”
As someone who understands the markets of the UK and the UAE particularly well, Hardcastle feels that the UK may be slightly ahead in the sustainability space, though both nations still have plenty of work to do.
“Consumers in both countries are not acting as quickly as I would like to see, but there is a stronger legacy of reuse and recycle in the UK – especially with fashion, electronics, toys and nursery items for example,” Hardcastle says. “This is burgeoning across the GCC where we see so much attached to the power of
‘new’. UAE consumers need to ask themselves more if they really need it before they buy. Constant upgrades of electronics, toys, clothing and more is often unnecessary and simply a habit that harms both your purse and the future of the planet – over production is the last thing landfill needs.
“Reuse and recycle as often as you can. Accepting pre-loved items makes sense – buying items to last, and passing on the unwanted when you no longer need them is the way forward.”