How can we keep sustainability alive in the cost of living crisis? Listen to Vivienne Westwood!

Jan 4, 2023 |3 min read

The drive for sustainability has a new challenge on its hands: we know we need to act more sustainably, but is it worth it when we’re all feeling the pinch?

2022 was the UK’s hottest year on record; 81% of Brits say we’re heading for environmental disaster unless we act quickly. We need to act on climate change, but other current issues are high priority. The rising cost of living means sustainable goods are potentially at even more of a disadvantage for typically having a higher price tag and becoming harder for consumers to justify. Value for money and cost remain top of purchase considerations: 6 in 10 are now prioritising value for money over environmental credentials.

So how can we ever get over the price hurdle for sustainable goods? I think Vivienne Westwood had the answer.


Despite no longer being on the fringe, sustainable goods remain expensive

Sustainability has gained a lot of traction amongst consumers and therefore many are adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. However, sustainable goods remain at the premium end of the market, with a higher price tag.

Put simply: producing goods with a lower environmental impact tends to cost more because there is a focus on quality from end-to-end; from reducing impact on the planet, to being longer lasting and ensuring a sustainable supply chain. As a result, sustainability and premium pricing goes hand-in-hand.

But logic tells us that if we want everyone to do something different, it should be accessible. But this is not the case with sustainable goods, and consumers know this all too well. For many, cost is the top barrier to acting more sustainably and this is unlikely to go away.


But most are still feeling overwhelmed and confused about sustainability and not sure if it’s worth it

Climate change is undeniably terrifying, as my colleague Jess wrote when reflecting on COP27. It’s the biggest challenge facing humanity. Yet, the Advertising Standards Authority has recently warned that consumers are confused over environmental claims in ads. We encounter sustainability buzzwords all the time – they feel familiar to us because they’re being banded around all the time, but most have limited understanding of even the most basic issues.

Thinking of my own experiences, I am highly engaged with sustainability, and I do all the things we’re told are good for the planet: I’m vegan, I use public transport and I buy the sustainable option where I can… and I’m still not sure I fully understand it! Sustainability moves so fast that it’s possible for something to be the best one day and the worst the next. Which brand should I buy from? What impact will my purchase have? How can I reduce my carbon footprint?

It’s a minefield when even those we thought we could trust aren’t always delivering on their promises - BrewDog recently had their BCORP certification revoked. And as a result, it sometimes doesn’t feel worth engaging with and therefore not worth spending money on, especially in a cost of living crisis which is impacting consumers NOW and feels more urgent. Who knows if by spending more on something now I’m ACTUALLY doing good in the future? Consumers can be left with negative associations with sustainability and sustainable goods: cheated, left out and helpless.


Sustainability needs to dial up quality, lean into brand affinity, and support consumers to do their best to address value for money concerns

With many consumers continuing to prioritise value, it’s crucial that brands selling sustainable goods talk more about the merits of choosing them. Talk up the wisdom of Vivienne Westwood: “buy less, choose well and make it last”.

Buy less: Dial up quality

40% of consumers are scaling back their spending due to reduced disposable income, but this shouldn’t mean we sacrifice quality. And it’s in the very nature of sustainability to ensure a high level of quality: deliberate choices, not rampant consumerism.
As Advertising Week puts it: brands should “be more grandma” and demonstrate the benefit of buying sustainably.
Opportunity for brands to show cost per use vs. a cheaper competitor whose products may not last as long – to make the value of their product more tangible for consumers. As grandma would say “buy cheap, buy twice”.


Choose well: Lean into brand affinity

65% of marketers report that their budgets have been cut… but in times of upheaval citizens look for reassurance and familiarity – an opportunity for brand building and storytelling.
One of the core benefits of sustainable goods is that you get more traceability, transparency and knowledge about products: where the materials have come from, who made it, how they made it etc.
Shouting louder about your practices can be an easy way to create a deeper connection with your customer, reminding them why they choose you*.


Make it last: Helping customers to keep their stuff for longer

There has been a growing desire to love our stuff for longer, likely inspired by trailblazers in this space (such as The Repair Shop, Patagonia and Depop) who give our items a second life through repairing, recycling upcycling or re-selling.

This has fuelled increasing demand for repair services to be rolled out across other sectors, with many brands now getting involved to re-service the products they sell. For example:

It’s increasingly important that brands demonstrate the quality and value of their offering through services that extend the lifetime of their goods.


People are keen to make a difference but need support from brands

People are eager to make positive changes to their lifestyle to be more sustainable, but they’re overwhelmed with information and choices. And to add to this, already expensive sustainable products feel even more unattainable in the current cost of living crisis – are they worth it?
Brands should aim to bring consumers on their sustainability journey and tap into the power of positive encouragement; supporting consumers to make good choices and making them feel proud of it.



*However, be aware of greenwashing. For brands who over-egg their credentials, or aren’t doing as much as others, it’s likely they’ll be found out with many people sharing information about which brands to purchase or not online. For example, websites like Good On You allow consumers to access ratings on a brands sustainability credentials based on research about a brand’s practices.