The Meaning of Sustainability in South Africa

13 Dec 2012|Inka Crosswaite

With South Africa contributing up to 50% of the continent’s CO2 emissions (as much as the United Kingdom but at less than one-sixth of the GDP), there is a growing awareness of ethical and green issues.  Inka Crosswaite, cultural insight specialist with Added Value Cape Town delves into what the word ‘sustainability’ means in South Africa.

‘Sustainability’ is shaping consumer behaviour, slowly but surely. For consumers, some choices are more ‘sustainable’ than others – the word either reinforces a positive feeling, or reduces a negative one. And while all three pillars of sustainability are important, for South Africa it is the socio-political pillar that represents the strongest need and comes ‘naturally’ in the spirit of Ubuntu.

The spirit of Ubuntu is just one of many forms in which sustainability is embedded in local South African culture. Life in the townships is not easy. People need to make the most of what they have. They maximise what is available to them and seek to craft it into something more, something that captures the imagination so that it can generate some return for them. Lower LSM South Africans have learned from their mothers and grandmothers to make basic things  go further. They spontaneously recycle waste material and see it as an opportunity to help themselves and the community around them.

Recent numbers from the 2011 Sustainability Survey (Ogilvy Earth Cape Town) confirm that an estimated 91% of South Africans want big brands to keep them up to date with the positive contributions they are making to society. This mega trend is further fuelled by the growing dissatisfaction with economic uncertainty and political instability and the inequalities they bring in South Africa. People are starting to fight for what they believe in, for the return of protest and people power. They don’t just believe in it, they do it.

We identified  three key micro trends within this mega trend for South African consumers:

The ‘Everyday Ethics’ trend:  characterised by the fact that together we can effect big changes through small acts and changes in our daily routines and behaviours. The new motto is reduce, reuse, repair and re-imagine and then recycle. One important manifestation of these trend is the growing role of brands in promoting “Eco Cycology”  –  helping consumers to recycle by taking back and repurposing  old items. Patagonia, Nike and Garnier are all operating in this space in South Africa

The ‘Spirit of Uprising’ trend:  if people believe in something they will act upon their beliefs. They expect their brands to do the same. As a result we are seeing an increasing number of brands take a ‘One Issue Stand’ , selecting one unique issue to stand for and shout about in a bid to cut through the clutter of ethical campaigns and initiatives.

The ‘Eco Iconic’ trend – eco-conscious consumers are eager to flaunt their green behaviour and possessions.  A growing number of brands are thus embracing greater design aesthetic in the creation of eco-friendly products and services, which become badges for the hip and cool. Examples include Beauty Engineered Forever, Method and Daub & Bauble.

There is a wealth of trends that brand owners can tap into to drive their own sustainability messaging.  As long as the future direction they take is authentic to the brand’s roots and positioning, South African consumers are more than ready to support more sustainable choices.

Written by Inka Crosswaite, Cultural Insight Specialist.

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