Over the past couple of years, we have spent time observing the swell of conversation around sustainability. Our society and politics has become dominated by a debate that, in this so-called age of outrage, feels as polarising as Brexit.

Beyond the headlines garnered by the media, Greta Thunberg and our politicians, to what extent are ideas around sustainability filtering down into the everyday lives of consumers? How are messages being absorbed, if at all, into consumer consciousness? And how, in turn, are these messages influencing consumer behaviour?

As brands – new and old – seek to engage the issue in a bid to demonstrate ethical stances that align with shifting consumer expectations, positing a clear brand vision of a sustainable future is proving a key component of a given brand’s cultural strategy, if not solely their commercial one.

Is sustainability simply a fad, a passing “trend” that’s being treated with the same air of tokenism and disposability that progressive issues have done in recent years? The debate raises some key considerations for brands. When does existential threat become cultural (and societal) opportunity? What is your brand’s sustainable insight? What is the relationship you wish to forge with consumers and communities in order to ensure that long-term engagement? It’s perhaps important to ask these questions. To treat the issue of sustainability as a passing trend feels counter. Or is there something much deeper at play from the point of view of thinking about long-term strategic success over quick wins.

Many still feel priced out of access to sustainable products. As such, there is an inherent tension between our compulsion to consume and sustainability in its truest sense.

In my day to day, I try not to contribute to fast fashion as often as a new trend will come out. But I’m not in a position where I can buy all eco-friendly clothes, so it’s about small wins. If I’m gonna buy fast fashion, I buy pieces I can have for a long time.

Sustainable alternatives to lifestyle products are often more expensive in the green marketplace. Many people we spoke to suggested that, for example, clothing made out of sustainable/eco-friendly materials often demanded a higher price tag. It is this premiumisation of sustainable products that serves to deny access to the average consumer; our ethical and moral consciousness is left asking whether democratisation of sustainable products is even a thing. Is this movement – that we’re currently all being told we’re accountable for – actually driving further exclusivity?

Until now, we’ve understood “sustainability” under purely environmental terms. What’s clear is that it’s starting to take on a new and profound meaning in our day to day lives, behaviours and attitudes.

Plainly, this is about giving the consumer a greater feeling of choice; offering viable alternatives that engage them in a decision-making process that crucially aligns with their emerging value system. It’s worth considering that this is a value system that still requires further definition and exists therefore as a critical role for brands to provide the tools and language that will enable consumers to do so.

Or, if you’re a brand like Oatly, you don’t want to just talk exclusively about sustainability and instead, focus on positioning your product as a lifestyle brand instead. After all, at a time when eco-anxiety looms heavy, to what extent would the consumer engage in messaging that only serves to threaten and heighten their already acute sense of anxiety?

Read the rest of Will de Groot’s article here at The Drum