Two years ago, an international research carried out by Nielsen detected the following trend: consumers are willing to pay more if the manufacturer assumes social responsibility and protects the environment from pollution. A year ago, GfK Consumer Life published data indicating that 73% of respondents all over the world are demanding full environmental responsibility from businesses. As the research results are being published and the new trends emerge, consumer-manufacturer communications are rapidly moving away from the dry format of ‘I buy you sell’ model. They start to resemble a dialogue, a community with common—sometimes global—ethical objectives. .
The relationship between business and environmental trends is also reaching a new level: they started with some confrontation (the introduction of environmental standards that increase the cost of production), but now they are mutually beneficial. Companies show initiative by sponsoring the development of innovations. They launch eco-campaigns, and those campaigns give them a reputation boost, help them find new meanings for themselves and grow their audiences. The nature-friendly approach has been transformed into new business models.
Converse, a Nike subsidiary and a shoe brand with a century-long history, finds itself filling the shoes of an eco-preacher as it launches a large scale international event: Converse City Forest. Converse’s campaign aims to recruit artists from all over the world to paint murals that absorb air pollution on the walls of buildings. According to the company’s experts, one such graffiti in the stone jungle produces an effect equivalent to that of 15 to 1,470 trees.
For its environmental campaign, Converse turned to a product from one of the leading paint companies in the Philippines (a significant portion of Converse’s production is located nearby in Indonesia). Pacific Paint (BOYSEN) Philippines Inc. was founded in 1953 and over the course of its 70-year history it has become one of the industry leaders in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2007, Boysen began researching their new development, the KNOxOUT Air Cleaning Paint. The company claims that the paint coating purifies the air, provides antibacterial protection. The paint has no odour and does not produce toxic fumes. Any painted surface triggers a purification reaction upon contact with polluted air and sun rays, converting ‘dirt’ into water, calcium and a negligible amount of carbon dioxide.
The paint was tested from 2007 to 2010 at the Makati MRT Station Trial in Manila and at King’s College London in Camden. An experiment in Manila showed that 4,200 squares of painted surface clean the air better than one mature tree over the course of a single day, filtering 0.44 grams of nitric oxide per square metre (an adult tree filters 0.42 grams). London-based eco-researchers sampled the air in the painted area every 15 minutes for three years, and came to the conclusion that the air in the measurement zones became 20–50% cleaner. At the time of publication, eco-murals have already been created in Bangkok, Belgrade, Warsaw, Lima, Sydney, Jakarta, Manila, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Melbourne, Bogota, Panama and Johannesburg. It’s worth pointing out that Converse engages local art communities to create the designs for the murals. The large-scale eco-campaign is thus transformed into an international creative flash mob—an accelerator that helps people discover new names in art. Distinctive street artists, graphic artists, designers and talented self-taught artists known in their small communities and on social media make themselves known to the world as their work becomes a powerful marketing tool. Importantly, all the graffiti of the Converse City Forest project not only benefits nature and promotes authentic motifs of the area but also bring to light deeper social struggles—from Mexican muralism-styled feminism of Jennifer Diaz (now replacing 300 trees in Mexico City) to inclusiveness and solidarity (1,020 trees) by AG Saño in Manila.
In the meantime, IKEA buys out forests instead of painting them. Ingka Group, the owner of IKEA, acquired 11,000 acres of forest in Georgia, USA, and keeps on buying more forests. The company admits that this is one of the aspects of their strategy. The goal is to become a climate-positive company, by 2030. That implies reducing greenhouse gas emissions, transitioning to electric vehicles, rethinking the use of materials and business models as well as offering IKEA furniture buyouts to customers. The furniture will then be repaired and resold.
At the time of publication, Ingka Group owns 136,000 acres of forests across five US states. Vice President of the company Brian Dungler notes that the company only buys endangered forests. Moreover, the company selects the exact plots that the owners plan to split and sell for felling and urban development (working forests). After each purchase, IKEA changes the legal status of the site, formalising its ‘indivisibility’, and only then sells it. This is how the company saves the ecosystems of these territories, reduces the environmental impact of the logging industry and improves its public image. The company has every chance to become one of the most ethical companies in the world..
Environmental friendliness is the new luxury
During the pandemic, many companies in the luxury industry had to urgently rethink their missions and policies. And some have succeeded in every sense brilliantly—Aether, a jewellery company, proudly announced the start of sales of diamonds grown from polluted air.
Representatives of the company say that the patented technology that converts the air polluted with carbon dioxide into gemstones is a revolution in the diamond industry known for its unethical mining practices. In addition (and much to the delight of the consumer), eco-stones should be identical to natural mined diamonds not only in chemical composition but also in outward appearance.
Despite the modest size of the catalogue and unobvious prices, the demand for Aether diamonds is quite impressive already. An online queue has been set up on the company’s website due to the huge number of preorders. According to CEO Ryan Shearman, the world is clearly ready to embrace sustainability as the new luxury—following the launch of the innovative product, brand’s sales have increased sixfold.
Responsibility is Fashionable
The media business is also struggling for survival among the large-scale environmental accomplishments of businesses in adjacent industries. In January 2020, Vogue Italia released a completely drawn issue, which discusses the climate crisis (among other things). Emanuele Farnetti, Vogue Italia’s Editor-in-Chief, said that avoiding photo shoots helped to reduce emissions and resource consumption. He explained that creating each a single issue involves ‘dozens of specialists, twenty flights, ten trains, forty cars, sixty business trips and floodlights working at least 10 hours every day’. Farnetti also mentioned the plastic packaging for clothes and even charging of phones and cameras. The media manager acknowledged that the creation of a fashion magazine has a significant impact on the environment, and the January issue is literally a breath of fresh air.
In fact, Vogue achieved several things with its eco-issue: the publishing house solve several problems at once. It secured their readers’ loyalty and attracted a new eco-friendly audience; it brought itself up to date in the environmental trend; it implemented an innovative approach—a fully drawn issue is a precedent for the industry; it provided an exclusive product—the issue will surely become a collector’s item; it expanded its target audience by drawing in people from the art community—contemporary artists were involved in the creation of the issue; it improved the ethics of the publishing business through philanthropy—Vogue Italia donated all the savings it incurred during the creation of this issue to the Fondazione Querini Stampalia to save a flooded museum in Venice.
Sent by Spinach
The agricultural sector is also looking for opportunities to become greener. The industry is trying to eliminate chemicals and prove to the consumer that its products are completely natural. A new modified version of spinach created at MIT may soon become a viable agricultural solution. The Singapore-based laboratory of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology is already working on implementing the technology, although the research effort is still ongoing.
The modified plant can detect pollution in the soil and in the air—it can also report it by email or SMS. It must be remarked that it is not recommended to use such spinach in food: there are tiny (50,000 times thinner than a human hair) sensors are embedded in its leaves. How does it work? Spinach is extremely sensitive to soil toxicity; if the soil is contaminated, its leaves will react. The reaction is picked up by nanosensors light up in an infrared camera. The camera is the device that actually contacts the landowner and submits the report. Scientists who created the spinach notifier note that the technology will be especially useful for real business — it is easy to install and it provides very accurate data before the plant dies. It will also be a lot cheaper than satellite imagery and hyperspectral drone operation. The sensors can also be configured to assess plant stress factors — destructive temperature, disease or lack of water. Scientists plan to ‘tune’ living plants so that they could accumulate solar energy during the day and operate as standard light sources at night. It is expected that this technology, once fully implemented across the agricultural sector, will save resources, reduce electricity and fuel consumption as well as improve the industry’s commodity indicators.
Bio-businesses and businesses that were until recently uninterested in environmentally-friendly tech both need the developments put on the market by international science teams now. In an article published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, a group of researchers shared their vision for ‘vat-grown furniture’ production. The name might talk big game, but the procedure itself simply concerns the synthesis of woody plant tissue from cells extracted from leaves and soil. The project team is confident that the method can become revolutionary and highly demanded.
Luis Velazquez-Garcia, Chief Researcher at Microsystems Technology Laboratory and co-author of the article, noted that tree cells are no different from stem cells or ‘lab-grown meat’. They are easy to grow, allowing for creation of furniture that both ethical and natural. Most importantly, they save the manufacturer’s time—a ‘vat-grown’ table can be created a lot faster than the current furniture production technology would allow it. Although the vat-grown furniture research is still at an early stage, its successful completion could be the starting point for a new way to produce biomaterials. Velasquez-Garcia cites the experience of a Japanese company that designs wooden space satellites, noting that any steps taken towards environmental benefit are steps in the right direction both in space exploration and in business.
Innovations for Transformation
Charity events and the search for ethical eco-friendly solutions for the consumer started as flashmobs, but the ‘go natural’ trend is taking over craft micro-businesses and giant corporations alike. Science and business are joining forces in synergy to bring us innovative environmentally friendly solutions. These days, it’s not just about slapping a popular ‘Bio-‘ prefix on a product: it’s about creating value for companies. It’s a powerful alternative business tool to build up reputation, expand or rethink product lines, establish communication with consumers and capture new audiences with the company’s positive image.
Increased sales, cementing loyalty of existing customers and attracting new customers are but a byproduct. In the wake of the environmental revolution in the minds of the modern consumer, businesses have the opportunity to act in a new capacity: as ambassadors of environmental well-being, they can create a community of caring consumers who value the company’s environmental responsibility and build their relationship with the company on its foundation.