Have yourself a sustainable little Christmas

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Have yourself a sustainable little Christmas

Days are shorter, the weather’s colder and lampposts are adorned with fairy lights. It can only mean one thing: Christmas is around the corner. The festive season comes with a large dollop of consumerism along with the celebrations. Whether people are stuffing stockings or stuffing their faces, the spending spree comes with a carbon footprint impact. With sustainability high on people’s radar, they may decide to change habits or may feel more encouraged to do so. But it’s also incumbent on companies, particularly those in the consumer discretionary sector, to help people reduce their environmental impact. Without going ‘full Grinch’ and proposing that we cancel Christmas, let’s look at some of the ways we can make the festive season more sustainable.

If you must go fast, go circular

Commentators have noted that ‘fast fashion’ is fading out of style. Customers, they say, would rather pick up quality second-hand items that will last than a brand-new pair of jeans that that won’t last until next December. Figures for 2020, however, suggest some brands were still seeing increasing year-on-year sales over the Christmas period, as shoppers clamber to buy gifts and find deals amid Black Friday sales. So, if people are still buying these items and the trend continues in 2021, what can suppliers do to mitigate their climate impact? Perhaps it’s worth backtracking and outlining some of the issues raised around fast fashion. The relatively short lifespans of lower-quality clothing mean the resources invested in making them represent a greater level of waste. Estimates have suggested it could take up to 1,800 gallons of water to manufacture one pair of jeans. That’s a high cost on the environment if they need to be replaced every season. Disposing of unwanted clothing also has its toll. Greenpeace claims 300,000 tonnes worth of discarded items are buried in landfill annually. Indeed, some companies have even been accused of burning items that have never been sold. In addition, cheaper items of clothing are made with materials that release microplastics into waterways every time they visit the washing machine. The environmental impact of fast fashion is severe. But people keep buying clothes. So, how can fashion brands take action without hurting their sales? One way is to embrace circular economics, not just in the production process, but by empowering customers. A good case study here is H&M, a company that has been accused of perpetuating many of the ills detailed above. The Swedish retailer has, however, taken some steps that allow its customers to be more sustainable. It has piloted initiatives, for example, helping second-hand and vintage clothes to be sold online while also trialling a clothing rental service. The company has also deployed AI to help it manage waste more effectively and partnered with Matrix Renewables in a bid to aid its climate goals. H&M is also giving customers an opportunity to recycle their own clothes, installing a recycling machine in one of its stores that separates hard-to-recycle textile blends from those that can be reused. A key element here is visibility. By allowing customers to see their clothing being recycled instantaneously in front of them, the firm is looking to create a ‘seeing is believing effect’, encouraging more mindful consumption from individuals and competitor brands. H&M has faced scrutiny, with some stakeholders historically questioning its sustainability performance, but its efforts demonstrate an attempt to encourage consumers to act more sustainably without reducing purchasing. The company has pledged to be ‘fully circular’ – admittedly a vague term – by 2030.

Go go gadget recycling

Ask any child whether they’d rather receive socks or a shiny new electronic gadget for Christmas and the answer will more than likely be the latter. While this may be a young consumer trend, ‘fast technology’ is a problem. In 2019 more than 40 million unused gadgets were sitting in UK homes. E-waste is a growing issue, and an expensive one at that. The UN has estimated at least $10bn of precious metal is discarded as e-waste each year, metals that could be put to use in climate-focused technology. So, what can technology companies do to ensure we are opening presents on Christmas morning with delight of a gift that has longevity? To some extent, this will be taken out of their hands. ‘Right to repair’ regulation is increasingly coming into force in various jurisdictions. Such measures mandate manufacturers to make their devices easier to repair and spare parts easier to come by. Other measures to tackle the issue are being looked at. The European Commission, for example, has proposed for a common USB-C charging standard for devices such as mobile phones, tablets, cameras, headphones and handheld gaming consoles in an effort to reduce e-waste. We are seeing big tech giants not waiting for their hands to be forced. Google, for example, has been manufacturing its Pixel phones and Nest thermostats with recycled materials for over a year. Its ambition is to only use recycled components for its handheld devices by 2022. Apple has been expanding its third-party repair scheme, allowing its devices to be repaired by independent providers who have access to official components manufactured by the company. Indeed, Apple has recently announced a further initiative called ‘Self Service Repair’, providing individuals with spare parts to repair their own devices, albeit also noting that ‘Self Service Repair is intended for individual technicians with the knowledge and experience to repair electronic devices’. Consumers don’t have to wait for companies to tackle e-waste. They can turn to services that allow them to offload gadgets they no longer need. Over 400,000 consumer technology products were recycled via Edison client musicMagpie , in the three-year period ending 30 November 2020, according to the company. musicMagpie also estimates it re-sells 2,500 tonnes of books and records annually that otherwise would contribute to waste.

Go service not product

Images of piles of presents under a tree typifies Christmas but also demonstrates piles of consumer waste, from the initial wrapping and packaging to the unwanted ill-fitting jumpers and eventual product obsolescence, all of which may or may not be recycled. Services, on the other hand, tend to carry a significantly lower carbon footprint. The shift from vinyl/CDs or video/DVDs to streaming is one example where products have been replaced by services. So too is the shift from physical books to online reading. Online books in the accounted for 36% of sales volume in 2020 according to Nielsen BookScan. Other perhaps less obvious physical markets are looking to product-as-a-service to provide a closed-loop system: running shoe manufacturer On, for example, has introduced its Cyclon subscription service. Perhaps next it can offer to do the running as well.

Can we indulge sustainably?

According to a poll carried out by Edison client YouGov in 2019, the average Brit spends £1,116 on Christmas with presents accounting for 34% of this. Christmas is purportedly the time for giving, but, in reality, is the time for consuming. The UK consumes around 7 million real trees and 2 million artificial trees each year. According to the Carbon Trust, a two-metre-tall real Christmas tree disposed of on a bonfire, replanted or chipped produces around 3.5kg CO2e. A tree sent to landfill sees this rises to 16kg due to the methane generated in decomposition, making disposal the critical factor rather than source. An artificial tree has a carbon footprint around 40kg CO2e, inevitably significantly higher, though it can obviously be reused. Perhaps the solution lies in turning to products-as-a-service. What if we all rented live trees and had them replanted in January? Impractical? Perhaps. Impossible? Probably not. Wishing you a sustainable Christmas from your friends at Curation Corp and Edison Group. This article has been created in collaboration with Curation Corporation Limited who are passionate about promoting and helping to deliver positive change in all things ESG. Curation specialises in providing thematic and business-specific intelligence to enable deeper understanding of the issues that matter most, and the implications for your business. If you’d like to find out more about ESG, please contact Kelly Perry at kperry@edisongroup.com

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