'If brands aren't helping the environment, they are part of the problem'

Why a swimwear brand turned to ocean waste to create its latest product and why brands should do more to address environmental issues.

'If brands aren't helping the environment, they are part of the problem'

Plastic and environmental waste is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, yet despite the ripples created by the BBC's Blue Planet series it is not an issue that many brands would describe as central to their marketing or business strategy.

Abandoned fishing nets, carpet and industrial waste wouldn’t be the first materials you would turn to make a swimsuit. Yet this is exactly what Zoggs did with the launch of its new Ecolast swimwear.

Alongside a pledge to make 100% of its packaging sustainable by 2020. Campaign caught up with Jocelyn Kirby, UK & Ireland customer officer and head of marketing at Zoggs, to find out why brands should do more to address environmental issues.

Q: Did this initiative start at a marketing or product level; where did the drive to address this environmental issue come from?

A: Ecolast was borne out of collaborative work between the Zoggs leadership team, product development team and the marketing team. In short, leveraging the agility of our business, along with a combination of technology, consumer insight and buy in from top-down has allowed us to drive the environmental agenda within Zoggs globally.

Q: From idea to execution, what process did you go on?

A: Technological developments in the textile industry in 2017 gave us the opportunity to consider adding this new, eco-friendly fabric into our range. At the same time, the new UK managing director Adrian Pearce joined the team, instilling a renewed and much greater focus on the consumer across the business. This deeper focus on the consumer enabled us to really demonstrate the importance of Ecolast to Zoggs, concluding that the real value for Zoggs as a brand would be to fully embrace Ecolast across as much of our range as possible. Adding a "token" selection of suits to our range simply for marketing benefit felt disingenuous and we unanimously agreed this was about the bigger picture and the greater good.

Once we took the decision to jump in feet first with Ecolast, there was a lot of work to do for both marketing around the messaging, and the product development teams to ensure that the new Ecolast fabric lived up to the high expectations that consumers have for the quality of our products. 

Q: What is the driving force behind this change? Is this more than just a marketing gimmick?

A: For Zoggs, there were a number of driving forces behind this change. Firstly, our consumer. To stay relevant, we have to follow our consumer. The ‘Blue Planet effect’ catapulted plastic waste and ocean issues to the fore of consumer awareness, but prior to this, we had already started to see a change in consumer attitudes and behaviour. Alongside this, as consumers ourselves, we were starting to question what we could do better as a brand when it came to environmental impact. After all, as a brand Zoggs is about the helping everyone enjoy the water, whether pool, lake or sea. We wanted to explore ways in which we could improve the impact we have on the environment through our business activities, we wanted to help preserve the seas for marine life and open water swimmers alike.

The technological developments that have made Ecolast possible have given us a vehicle with which to do more than just reduce plastic in our packaging, or recycle more paper. It allows us to use our brand message to campaign for greater good, to spread the message about looking after our planet and to be a brand we are proud to work for. Not only does this give us a sustainable consumer message with which to engage in conversations, it also supports the recruitment and retention of great people, who share our passion for the future. Our entire team is hugely proud of the project and that makes a big difference to even just the energy that everyone is putting into this launch.

Q: How are consumer attitudes to the environment changing? Is it cool to care and does this shift cross generations?

A: Consumer attitudes have had quite a dramatic shift in recent years from a throw-away society, to one that is far more focused on sustainability, recycling, longevity of products and preserving our planet for future generations. In part, this is probably driven by ‘eco’ options improving in performance. Electric car ranges are gradually increasing, the quality of recycled products is, in many cases, on par with non-recycled options and coupled with awareness of environmental issues being better publicised, society has changed from ‘not my problem’, to, ‘don’t add to the problem’. It is becoming cool to care, and in many cases, consumers are choosing environmentally friendly options with the same motivation that causes consumers to buy a specific brand. They want to align themselves with what it stands for, and in this case, they are saying, ‘I’m not adding to the problem’, or ‘I’m helping the problem’.

What was so important for us to consider with Ecolast was that the product performed as well as non-eco products (it does, it last 15-times longer than standard swimwear fabrics), that it didn’t cost more (we have aligned pricing with our current range) and that it allowed consumers to do good, as well as not do harm (it is made from nets pulled out of the ocean & waste saved from landfill). These combined messages are really powerful, and so instead of creating the typical consumer dilemmas of an environmental purchase, such as pay more for eco, or accept an inferior product for eco, we have taken away those dilemmas and just replaced with – all else is equal, choose eco and do good at the same time too. It’s a powerful message.

Q: Is the concern over the environmental impact of plastic becoming a mainstream consumer issue and have brands been slow to address it?

A: I mentioned the ‘Blue Planet effect’ earlier – concern over the environmental impact of plastic has been catapulted to the fore of consumer awareness, with an increasing number of influential people joining the campaign to make our consumption less damaging to our beautiful planet. Plastic is most definitely now a mainstream consumer issue and I don’t believe it will be going away. Consumers want change and they are going to choose brands that allow them to make that change. I feel terribly guilty every time I unwrap a bag of apples from the supermarket or throw away a carrier bag and I don’t like that feeling. It is one shared by many consumers across the country.

The continual reminder online, on TV, on the radio and in the papers, of the importance of reducing our plastic consumption ensures we are continually searching for ways in which to make better choices. Many brands have been quick to respond to the massive amount of publicity around the issue by making pledges and commitments to plastic reduction and more environmentally friendly business practices. I’m sure some have made statements to ensure they get their share of airtime, and I would love to see a follow up to see how many have delivered on their promises. For Zoggs, we were already working on reducing plastic, we roll out a 57% reduction of plastic in our goggle packaging in January and I have absolute confidence in the team to take this much further.

Q: You have set yourself a target of making all packaging sustainable by 2020; how important are targets in driving tangible change?

A: Targets are really important in all areas of our business, whether related to plastic use or shifting marketing focus. Targets allow us to identify where we want to be and what success looks like. When everyone knows what success looks like, we can work together to map a path to get there. Tangible change is exciting because so often it means we are doing things better, evolving and developing our brand for the future – it gives our team new challenges and we know that we are always learning and growing personally at the same time too.

Q: What do you hope will be the long term legacy of this NPD and how will you bring it to life through marketing?

A: I sincerely hope that Ecolast is just the beginning of a really exciting journey for Zoggs. We are committed to continuing to improve our environmental impact and it is a key agenda item at our product development meetings. Long term, I hope we can show the industry that this route is much more than a credible marketing story, meaning more follow in our footsteps.

In terms of bringing it to life, Ecolast is a fairly complex / technical story, especially if you start to look at the chain of organisations involved in its creation. We need to ensure we have honed both a beautifully simple message for absolute clarity in the eyes of the consumer, as well as leveraging content in order to tell a more complex story allowing us to bring more of the detail and background to Ecolast to life. Consumers are increasingly hungry for content, brand stories, and they love to hear about people who are doing good in the world. There is an abundance of these kinds of stories that we can talk about with Ecolast™ and the campaign will hinge around the quality of the content that we can produce to support the message.

In addition, we have around 400 million people walk past our retail presence in leisure centres each year, so the physical roll out of the campaign from January 2019 will be critical to driving awareness of Ecolast. With just a second or two to make an impact in these environments the simplicity of the messaging will be critical to making an impact.

Q: Do you believe brands should do more to tackle environmental issues and what would be your advice to brands starting out on this journey?

A: I absolutely believe brands should do more. It is brands that create consumer choice. Without the ability to make a better choice, consumers are left with the option of either buy and feel guilty, or don’t buy at all. As a brand we have a responsibility to our consumers and by giving them an eco-friendly option, they can feel positive about buying our products, as well as associating that positivity with our brand, which is great for brand loyalty.

For brands starting out on this journey I think it is important to understand why you are starting this journey in the first place. I believe there should be an authentic and genuine desire for the business to trade more ethically, and if this authenticity is present, I believe the rest of the journey will be far easier to navigate. It is important to have buy-in from all areas of the business as some parts of the journey will inevitably involve commercial decisions that may increase costs, but if the goals and benefits are clear, these decisions can be made with objectively and with absolute clarity. Additionally, commerciality has to be borne in mind. The journey has to be sustainable, not just from an environmental point of view!

Jumping on the bandwagon without giving it due thought and consideration could result in short cuts, negative PR and long term sustainability issues for the business. And finally, don’t let the fear of not being able to do it all in one go hold you back. I believe consumers have shifted from expecting perfection from brands, to appreciating efforts to do things better. Be honest about what you can do and what you intend to do and consumers will value your efforts and your honesty.