From Health and Wellness to Sustainability in Brands

By Iryna Lozynska

In the high-octane days of the Extinction Rebellion, it seems like another era when Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring rocked the preconceived notions on the environmental impact of DDT. Fast forward to 2019, and sustainability is par for the course in bottom-line oriented corporate world, with over 50% of global companies reporting on environmental policies.

Echoing sustainability’s victorious march into consumer and business mindset, health and wellness, itself a $4.2 trillion behemoth, is a veritable sea of influences, from plant-based philosophy to sleep-tech. We are entering the age of “Health and Wellness 2.0”, no longer niche but confidently mainstream, holistic, proactive, experiential, and bolstered by aspirational lifestyle philosophy, tech enablers, and innovative distribution methods.

Much desires to be improved in the way companies forge their sustainability and health and wellness approaches, from a dizzying terminology chaos (“natural,” “GMO-free,” “local,” “fair trade,” “organic”) to often-undeserved health reputation (looking at you, coconut oil and Goop). All that will eventually sort itself out (not without some systematic prods from regulators). What is most intriguing at the present juncture, however, is the very force guiding the relationship between the twin narratives of sustainability and health and wellness – understanding it will be crucial to building effective brands and communicating their value in a manner that will resonate the most with discerning consumers.

What often links sustainability to health and wellness is not correlation but causation – specific goods and services are frequently a gateway into certain-quality lifestyles. Health and wellness and sustainability are not necessarily dancing to a concurrent beat. Rather, one personally impactful narrative (health and wellness) nourishes a slightly more nebulous one (sustainability) which, in turn, reinforces its donor. The relationship between health and wellness and sustainability is shaping up to be not a correlation but rather a complex causation evolving into a symbiosis.

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The health and wellness ethos is almost instinctively easier for consumers to become aware of, to understand, and to adopt, especially as it connects with food, a vital and universal cultural manifestation. That, amplified by public awareness campaigns on diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, and drug addiction, makes health and wellness a good entry point into other concepts, especially sustainability. According to the Food Marketing Institute’s analysis, “a cultural shift is occurring from ‘health’ toward [a more holistic concept of] ‘quality of life’.”

Increased public understanding of environmental impact on the quality of life is the final piece of the puzzle. With the widely publicized onslaught of environmental disasters, from California’s forest fires to Venice flooding, the urgency of environmental issues is more palpable than in the past. Today’s zeitgeist, climate change, has graduated from rudimentary awareness to an engine of concern powering at crisis levels. This is just beginning to manifest itself in the nuances of a consumer journey, but early research points to consumption of sustainability-marked CPG products growing faster than their conventional product alternatives. Consumers are voting with their wallets, and early adopters are reaping the rewards — like Unilever, whose “sustainable living” brands are now making up 70% of its revenue growth.

Riddle solved? Not quite. Dunking a theoretical framework into real-life market complexities is often messy, as health and wellness and sustainability do not always fold into each other as neatly as one would imagine. Avocados and plant-based meat stand out as examples where top marks in one category did not spill over into success in the other.

In the case of avocados, well-documented health benefits have inducted the fruit into a cult status, with consumption per capita rising 443% in the last 20 years. Increased demand has fuelled illegal deforestation and environmental degradation. Avocado’s well-deserved health halo hides a woeful sustainability report card, and consumers are beginning to care, with nascent boycotts of “blood avocados” underway in some markets of Western Europe, especially the UK.

With plant-based meat, the story is in reverse. Beyond Meat and Sustainable Burger have disrupted the plant-based alternatives market, firing at all engines with enviable cross-industry partnerships. Alas, the brands’ health and wellness records are spotty at best, with meatless alternatives being heavily processed and high in saturated fats. The days for plant-based alternatives are still early, and it remains to be seen how the lackluster health stats will impact the category’s consumer perceptions. However, the fact that perceived health benefits and taste preferences are most significant purchase drivers for plant-based foods and beverages should already be a red flag for any brand venturing into this category with a poorly substantiated health profile.

To address both health and wellness and sustainability, some brands resort to cross-industry partnerships. For example, the UK retailer Debenhams has teamed up with a fitness chain Sweat to roll out in-store gyms. This way, health and wellness is elevated with the external help of an industry specialist, while the fledgling Debenhams is taking steps in-house to polish the sustainability piece of the equation by looking into improving its supply chain. Debenhams is venturing to build on its internal strength and expertise in the sustainability area of health and wellness and sustainability paradigm while leveraging a partner to elevate the other area. Given the challenging financial times for Debenhams, it is telling that the company chose to make these previously ‘nice-to-have’ concepts critical elements of its turnaround strategy.

Beyond partnerships, it is possible for categories to forge ahead on their own while successfully touching upon both health and wellness and sustainability themes. Sidewalk Labs, for instance, propositions a future of urban communities that would encompass health and wellness as well as sustainability at the junction of ubiquitous sensorization (many sensors enabling smart traffic signals, intelligent curbs, and more), decarbonization, public health, and other socioeconomic elements.

Another example where health and wellness and sustainability halos are glowing at the outset is the cascara. Traditionally tossed after the coffee beans have been harvested, cascara is the skin of the coffee fruit surrounding the bean. Today, third-wave coffee shops the world over are repurposing this would-be waste into beverages that benefit from cascara’s high antioxidant content, lower caffeine levels, and taste versatility. Cascara is evolving from waste into a sustainable and healthy alternative beverage.

Understanding the relationship between sustainability and health and wellness is essential when navigating the world of storytelling and brand-building, made ever more complex by the savvy consumer increasingly commanding an elevated, premium experience (especially for FMCG goods and grocery retail). As the world moves, according to social commentator David Brooks, “from self-effacement to self-expression,” articulating the virtues of sustainability and health and wellness is undeniably relevant to the ultimate consumer experience.

Iryna Lozynska is a Senior Research Consultant at M-Brain Group.

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